(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
As his July 2014 flight landed in Portland, Ore., Drew Lock experienced a momentary flush of panic.
“My Elite 11 experience was probably the toughest thing I’ve been through — at least before last season,” Lock said of the turbulence he faced as a freshman starter for Missouri.
Lock first tasted adversity at the Elite 11 Quarterback Finals, the nation’s premier competition for high school quarterbacks that counts more than a half-dozen current NFL starters among its alumni — including Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck.
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Then a rising senior at Lee’s Summit High, Lock stepped off a plane in the Pacific Northwest and was “thrown into a room with 18 of the best quarterbacks in the country,” along with Super Bowl-winning QB Trent Dilfer “and just a bunch of guys who know a lot more about football than you do.”
Meeting the camp’s counselors and other quarterbacks — highly touted standouts such as UCLA’s Josh Rosen, Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray and Arkansas’ Ricky Town — and battling through a skills competition proved easy compared to the Navy SEAL training he’d endure.
Lock and his fellow top-tier 2015 quarterback recruits were subjected to frigid night swims, 5-mile runs wearing heavy backpacks and other physically and mentally taxing activities.
“Then, they would put you through your quarterback stuff, just to see how you could handle it being so wiped out through a whole week,” Lock said. “The cold swim at night while carrying a raft you would use in Colorado whitewater rafting was crazy.”
Partnered with Murray, Town and former Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion for the raft exercise, Lock swam to a designated point. After Murray climbed into the raft, the other team members dragged him back to shore and together the exhausted quartet ran the raft up a sand dune.
“It took your breath away getting in,” Lock said. “It was scary stuff.”
It’s all been part of a charmed life for Lock, who probably would be playing Division I basketball if he hadn’t signed a football scholarship with Missouri.
“I feel like I’ve generally had an easy life,” Lock said. “I’ve had a great family, we’ve been financially OK, and I haven’t even had a grandparent die.”
That made the Tigers’ 2015 season an incredibly rude awakening.
By last August, “The Drew Lock Hype Train” had become a runaway locomotive with every picturesque spiral the then-Mizzou freshman twirled downfield during his first fall camp.
Teammates raved after practices, fans gushed after scrimmages and Lock, as he had with most life endeavors to that point, made college football seem easy.
Initially, it carried into the season as Lock led the Tigers to a field goal on his first career drive against Southeast Missouri and capped his collegiate debut with a 78-yard touchdown heave to Tyler Hunt.
After starting quarterback Maty Mauk was suspended four games into the season, Lock took over and dazzled against South Carolina in his starting debut.
He threw for two touchdowns and completed 21 of 28 passes with no interceptions in a 24-10 victory, a performance that validated his status as a four-star recruit and NFL prospect.
“I was thinking about it after the game,” Lock said. “I was like, ‘That was the South Carolina Gamecocks and Steve Spurrier. Wow, I just won my first college football game and it really wasn’t that hard. Hopefully, we’ll keep building off that.’ ”
Instead, the hype train ran off the rails.
Missouri failed to score a touchdown in its next three games, a first for the program since 1937, as Lock led 47 consecutive drives without finding the end zone.
The Tigers totaled 12 points during losses against Florida, Georgia and Vanderbilt, with Lock going 41 of 99 for 402 yards with two interceptions. He also was sacked 11 times.
The symbolic moment came during a 9-6 loss at Georgia’s Sanford Stadium in his first road start.
An Ian Simon interception on the game’s first play set up Missouri’s offense at the Bulldogs’ 1.
“I never took one snap under center in high school,” Lock said. “Right as I was running on the field, and you can feel the whole stadium on top of you down in the closed-in part of stadium, it was loud as can be. I’m doing something foreign by going under center. I fumbled it and got picked up by about five guys on the Georgia defense. I was like, ‘Wow, this could be a night-and-day difference.’ ”
Two plays later, Lock missed a wide-open Sean Culkin for a possible touchdown in the back of the end zone and the field-goal team trotted onto the field.
Lock internalized that failure and others that would come.
“At the quarterback position, if you win, all the praise goes to you,” Lock said. “But definitely, if you lose, the criticism comes to you as well. I was caught up in that too much, and I didn’t need to have that mind-set. It put a lot of pressure on me, thinking that I would have to win the game or everyone would think it’s on me. That’s something I can’t do this year.”
Beyond the field, as Lock continued adjusting to college life, Mauk’s ongoing saga of suspensions, a player boycott amid on-campus racial tension and former coach Gary Pinkel’s retirement compounded Lock’s on-field issues.
“That was like being at the bottom of the mountain and you hear the rock slide coming down and it just all hit you at the bottom,” Lock said.
The easy narrative is that Lock’s freshman season was a failure.
Statistically, it was, but Lock doesn’t think numbers alone tell the story.
Yes, Mizzou went 2-6 after Lock took over as the starting quarterback, including a 1-6 record in conference play.
And, yes, Lock’s final stat line — he completed 49 percent of his passes, going 129 of 263 for 1,332 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions — was poor. He also was sacked 25 times on 288 dropbacks, a rate of 8.7 percent.
Lock posted a 90.5 quarterback efficiency rating, which ranked 122nd among 124 qualified quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision last season, leading only North Texas’ Andrew McNulty (89.3) and Charlotte’s Lee McNeill (83.1).
None of this is news to Lock.
“It was an overwhelming kind of deal,” he said. “I didn’t know very much in terms of reading defenses. I was always the better athlete and could just kind of go out and do my thing (in high school). I got here, and that was not the case.”
It’s clear now Lock wasn’t ready to lead an SEC offense with only a few summer months studying the playbook and 29 practices/scrimmages during fall camp.
“Do I think he was truly ready? No, but is anybody ever truly ready,” said Lee’s Summit’s Eric Thomas, Lock’s high school coach. “Obviously, he took some punishment for it. Mentally and physically, he got beat up a little, but I think he learned a lot.”
That’s where the struggles become something more, because Lock believes his journey is not defined by the missteps but from how he’s responded.
“It made me stronger and I’m thankful for it now,” he said. “I’m glad it happened to me as a true freshman rather than a redshirt junior, when I only had one year to fix it.”
First-year coach Barry Odom’s promotion led to a staff overhaul, and Lock’s relationship with new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel provides a much-needed fresh start.
“We’ve had a lot of talks,” Lock said “Everybody has their downside, but it’s what you do after that downside that makes you the player you are. Are you going to let the ghosts of your past haunt you throughout your career and hold you back? I’m not going to let that happen.”
Entering college, Lock’s floppy locks had become something of a signature look — a tousled sandy brown calling card that perfectly complemented his boy-next-door charm.
Lock’s hairstyle had become so engrained in his persona, he was hesitant to cut it, even though he’d secretly wanted to for a while.
“I would kid him about it,” said wide receivers coach Andy Hill, who recruited Lock to Mizzou and coached the Tigers’ quarterbacks last season. “Drew’s hair, it’s just kind of fun to make fun of.”
Not anymore, not after Lock got a trim in May from his mother, Laura’s, hairdresser in Lee’s Summit after a brief conversation with Heupel.
“I always wanted some outside motivation to cut my hair, because I was scared to cut it off,” Lock said. “ … He told me it was time to start building my brand and that NFL quarterbacks don’t have hair like mine. I started looking at it and wanted to give him the whole Tom Brady, Jay Cutler kind of deal. They all had the long hair … but I took the ‘L’ and cut it off.”
A new haircut isn’t the only Heupel-influenced change that Lock’s undergone.
“Coach Heupel has done wonders,” said senior wide receiver Eric Laurent, who started his career as a walk-on quarterback. “(Lock’s) maturity level has increased tenfold since coach Heupel got him under his wing and has been able to coach him. His footwork and just the little things that are so critical for a quarterback … he’s been improving tenfold on that.”
Heupel gave Lock an earful in July for scarfing down a frozen pizza as a midnight snack.
“Coach, I’m eating like a college student right now, because we’re not getting our checks currently,” Lock said, referring to the scholarship stipends he receives from August through May.
“I understand that,” Heupel said, “but you can’t be a college student. You’re not a normal college student.”
Lock explained, “He wants me thinking as if I’m a professional football player at a college level. That’s how I’ve got to run my life.”
He took the dietary advice to heart, transforming his body by adding 20 pounds of muscle to better withstand the rigors of being an SEC quarterback.
Lock has also changed his diligence with respect to film study, which he used to do for a half-hour per week in high school.
“He’s a different kid than he was only a few months ago,” Thomas said. “He’s made great strides in terms of mental progression. The best thing about it I could say is how detail-oriented he is now. Drew was never a real detail guy. He would just go make plays.”
Last season, backup quarterback Eddie Printz — not Mauk — helped Lock improve his film-study habits during camp to the point that Lock viewed Printz, who transferred to Texas State in the spring, as his primary competition.
Lock started to learn how to digest a playbook and dissect opposing defenses, but that’s gone to another level with Heupel, a Heisman Trophy runner-up for Oklahoma in 2000.
Perhaps Lock’s new off-field look will come to symbolize a metamorphosis on the field, too.
“I told him to lead in a way that a strong, charismatic quarterback leads,” Heupel said when asked about Lock’s haircut. “It was a pretty quick discussion and he showed up the next day or the following weekend and decided to cut it off.”
Mizzou hopes he’ll be as quick of a study in picking up Heupel’s new offense.
“He’s got it in him,” Odom said. “Maybe our roster last year was a little bit more difficult to lead for a number of reasons. I have noticed him — he’s always been an outgoing guy, but he’s taken another step and is acting like a vocal quarterback, which is what we need.”
There may have been a tendency to label Lock a bust after his struggles last season, but those who know him best don’t buy it.
“I can’t tell you how many times he told me (last season), ‘I thought I would be the difference-maker,’ ” Thomas said. “I told him, ‘You will be the difference-maker — just not yet.’ The special, playmaking ability that he has is still there.”
More settled and with renewed confidence, Lock intends to show it in 2016.
“I’ve got to keep the swag about me that I’ve always had,” he said. “I don’t necessarily think I’m playing with more of a chip now, because I know what I can do and I’m not here to prove anything.”