Slot Machine: How Eli Drinkwitz unlocked Jalen Knox

Despite the drop on Saturday, Knox’s versatility has been crucial to the Missouri offense.
Missouri receiver Jalen Knox reaches for the pylon during the Tigers' 45-41 win over LSU on Oct. 10, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Ball? Check. Blockers ahead? Check.

That was all Jalen Knox needed.

He took the ball on an end-around, running left at the 20. Knox beat LSU’s inside linebacker to the edge at the line of scrimmage and high-stepped at the 10 to force the safety to hesitate and take a poor angle. Then came a burst of speed at the five, past the diving safety and right to the pylon, where he reached the ball across.

“I can see how run blocks open up the rest of the field,” Knox said. “I know how to set up blocks and see stuff open up before it happens.”

That touchdown brought the Tigers to within three in the second quarter of Missouri’s stunning 45-41 victory. One game later against Kentucky, he caught three of quarterback Connor Bazelak’s eight successful third and fourth down completions — all coming out of the slot.

This is new for the junior, at least in a Missouri uniform. Under the Tigers’ previous offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, he was used primarily as a deep threat on the outside. Knox piled up 24 touches as a true freshman in 2018, then a disappointing 19 as a sophomore.

He has 30 through five games so far this year.

“We just try to tap into his playmaking abilities and find unique ways to get him the football,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “We’re always challenging ourselves, ‘What are ways we can get him on the perimeter? What are ways we can get him mismatched on different DB’s?’ And he delivers.”


Drinkwitz first began to consider using Knox in the slot, the position between the outside receiver and the rest of the formation, when he got commitments from graduate transfers Damon Hazelton, Jr. and Keke Chism.

Hazelton and Chism are both almost exclusively boundary receivers, so it made sense to move Knox to the slot.

“I had already started talking to coach [Drinkwitz] about it before that,” Knox said. “It was kind of a natural movement. We just kind of all understood what the situation was.”

“I think that’s what offensive football is about,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s about, ‘How do you utilize your skill players and your schemes in order to get guys in space with the ball in their hands?’”

Early in camp, it was easy to see why. Knox soon became a popular answer when his teammates were asked who could have a breakout year on offense with the new system in place.

“I think that Jalen has taken a step forward in his knowledge of the offense and being able to translate that into his play,” receiver Barrett Banister, Knox’s backup in the slot, said on Aug. 25. “He’s got a lot of physical traits that a lot of people don’t have, and you can’t teach that.”

“He’s a receiver that can play inside or outside,” receiver Dominic Gicinto said on Aug. 22. “Wherever you put him, he’s gonna make plays.”

Slot receivers have an inherent advantage over cornerbacks because it’s impossible for the defender to use the sideline as leverage off the ball. Matt Bowen, an ESPN NFL writer and analyst who played safety in the NFL for six years, tweeted this diagram in 2018 that shows how difficult the position is to cover.

“On the outside, it’s more technique,” Knox said. “It’s one-on-one battles, it’s releases, it’s that type of thing. In the slot, it’s more open field. I can just run around and use my speed to get open.”

With so many release options, receivers with speed off the ball are nearly impossible to cover, even if they don’t necessarily have an elite stutter-step release. Knox made this clear on a key third and seven against Kentucky.

“The offense does a good job of finding ways to get him the ball,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “But his speed is awesome, for sure.”

Knox has parlayed that skillset into a strong connection with Bazelak, a redshirt freshman with only five near-complete games under his belt.

Typically, young quarterbacks benefit from a “security blanket” that they know will be consistently open underneath, especially on crucial downs. For Bazelak, Knox has been that security blanket.

“It’s just building trust and timing over the past two years that I’ve played with him,” Bazelak said.

Drinkwitz has found Knox especially useful in pre-snap jet and orbit motion, another important part of his scheme.

Jet motion, a straight and full-speed motion across the formation and in front of where a shotgun quarterback stands, helped running back Tyler Badie break a long touchdown run against LSU.

Knox has run jet motion-style routes post-snap as well, becoming Drinkwitz’s main man for his boot-slide plays.

The team loves to run outside zone, a run concept in which all blockers run and push to one side. Naturally, they also love to fake that play and run Knox across the formation and it usually gives him green grass to work with.

When that happens, Knox, who ran track in the winter, will usually pick up a chunk play. That design was one of the first that Drinkwitz called all season, against Alabama.

Orbit motion, a semi-circular path around a shotgun quarterback or a backfield running back, sets up Missouri’s triple-option game. On these plays, the quarterback has the option to hand off to the running back up the middle, keep it, or pitch it to the motion man.

This adds another element to the scheme that defense must account for, which LSU coach Ed Orgeron pointed out days before Missouri’s upset win.

“Missouri on offense is very, very complicated,” Orgeron said. “Coach [Drinkwitz] has a lot of shifts and motions. He will run the triple option; that’s the first time I’ve seen a pitch off of a dive in a while.”

Weeks later, Drinkwitz went into detail about what all that pre-snap motion does to an opposing defense.

“Sometimes it can give you a number count, depending on how they rotate the safeties,” Drinkwitz said. “Sometimes it can give you a speed advantage on the edge if you’re gonna bounce. It causes the defense to have to communicate, again, whether or not they’re gonna rock and roll safeties ... I think it’s more about causing the defense disruption and giving us an opportunity to create a soft edge. And if they overplay the edge, counter ‘em.”

There’s a great deal of football jargon in there, but in layman’s terms, this is more or less what Drinkwitz said: Pre-snap motion can…

- tell the quarterback how many players are going to be in each area of the field.

- give the motioning player a head-start if he does end up getting the ball.

- force the defense to talk to each other immediately before the snap, which can catch them off-guard.

- make the edge rushers respect the possibility that the motion man gets the ball, which can cause them to be less disruptive in the run and pass game if he doesn’t.

- open a running or passing lane between the tackle and guard if the edge defender and/or off-ball linebacker overplays the motion.

While Badie was the motion man here — he and Knox have shared the role well — that’s exactly what happened on Missouri’s eventual game-winning touchdown against LSU.

***

When Drinkwitz and his offensive staff spoke with the media in fall camp, they continuously expressed the need for versatility among offensive personnel. This meant both versatility in alignment, as well as versatility in ability.

“You can present to a defense a formation that would primarily be run out of 11 personnel [a one running back, one tight end set] and 10 personnel [one running back, zero tight ends],” Casey Woods, tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator, said in August. “It gives you some versatility to have a spread formation while those guys are in, and then get to a condensed formation without substituting.”

He was talking about his tight ends, but that philosophy applies to receivers, too.

“If you’re set left and right or X and Z, then they can find you, figure out how to put their best player on you, figure out how to bracket coverage you,” Drinkwitz said. “If you’re always moving around and playing multiple positions, then you’re not gonna be easy to dictate a game plan around.”

During the offseason, the offensive staff looked at their roster and asked themselves, “Which players are capable of running a wide variety of plays?” In answering that question, Drinkwitz singled out Knox, and he meant it.

The receiver from Mansfield Timberview High School in Arlington, Texas has done everything. He’s galloped for explosive plays on end-arounds, received pitches on triple-options, taken handoffs, caught balls outside the numbers and caught balls between the hash marks.

Against Florida, he even tried the deep ball that made up most of his production before Drinkwitz arrived in Columbia. He made himself open, but he dropped it.

For Knox, this kind of usage is familiar. He was a do-it-all player in high school as well.

"We used him everywhere,” Mansfield Timberview coach James Brown said. “Jalen played an outside receiver, an inside receiver. Jalen played the running back position, he played the quarterback position.”

Quarterback?

“We used him in the quarterback run game,” Brown said. “We used him on the jet or fly sweeps when he was the number two receiver. We used him in every aspect of the game that we possibly could, just because he was so dynamic with the ball in his hands that we felt like we had to get it in his hands as much as possible.”

Knox has said that he was actually closer to a running back than a receiver in high school. That frustrated him, because his goal was always to play receiver in college and most schools were recruiting him at running back.

Brown’s logic was that Knox was too talented not to start the play with the ball in his hands, and Knox did acknowledge that the quarterback situation at the time played a role. Brown agreed with Knox’s decision to play receiver at the next level.

“His ball skills are so far out of the norm that I think it’s really a good move for him,” Brown said. “The body type and the size, I think he’s got the ability to play inside or outside. Just the fact that as a running back, you’re gonna take a beating on your body and it’s gonna take a toll on you.”

Knox, meanwhile, took the skills that he developed as a ball carrier at Mansfield Timberview and put them to good use at Faurot Field in 2020. The LSU touchdown run — where he saw “stuff open up before it happened” — was a good example.

“How I was used in high school is kind of like exactly how I’m being used now,” Knox said. “Except then, I was playing in the backfield, not really in the slot.”

***

Knox’s utilization has received all the attention, and rightfully so — in many ways, he’s a human manifestation of Drinkwitz’s rapid diversification of Missouri’s offense.

However, when reporters asked Knox what he believes is the main reason for his uptick in production, he didn’t say “usage.”

“Just my mindset [has changed],” Knox said. “Last year it was a little more ‘go out there, just kinda do what I have to do.’ I wasn’t into it and focused on really trying to make a difference.”

His teammates have noticed.

“The biggest thing with him is just his attitude every day in practice is so great,” redshirt senior receiver Micah Wilson said. “He’s always willing to do whatever coach [Drinkwitz] asks him to do … We’ve got a lot of unselfish dudes that are just willing to do whatever it takes for us to win, whether it’s blocking or in the run game, so yeah, really proud of him.”

Knox credits much of his growth to the coaching staff and the strength and conditioning staff, in large part for implementing a new philosophy to the team’s off-the-field training program, but that improved mindset could be a side effect of getting the football more.

His touches per game, which clocked in at a paltry 1.9 in 2019, has risen to 6 in 2020. While Knox was rightly self-critical for getting down on himself and losing focus when he wasn’t directly involved, it’s not abnormal for that to happen to a young wideout.

“Any kid with his skills and his skillset, when you know you’re gonna get the ball more, I think there’s a little bit more focus involved with him,” Brown said. “I just think that’s dealing with kids at any level right now.”

Knox watched since-graduated receiver Johnathon Johnson work out of the slot in the past two seasons, racking up 88 receptions in that span. Lining up in the slot, he said, gets you closer to the ball, which results in more touches.

“This is like a feeling of ‘I’m really playing in the game this week,’” Knox said. “I know Drink has a plan for what we’re gonna do today. I trust this plan, so I’m gonna go out and do everything I can. I’m motivated, and I enjoy playing football this year.”

Did Knox not enjoy playing football last year?

“I wouldn’t say that I didn’t enjoy it,” Knox said. “But this year is like, ‘I gotta go out here and do it because this is what I bought into.’”

_Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com_

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