Football used to be simple for Drew Lock.
As a talented two-sport star at Lee’s Summit High — Lock also had multiple Division I offers for basketball — he’d routinely carve up opposing defenses with the big arm attached to his right shoulder.
It allowed the Lee’s Summit football team to run a no-frills offense, maybe a quick out to the right with slant routes to the left and a simple pre-snap read.
“Pick a side,” Lock said. “We knew I had the best arm in the state and I’d be able to beat defenders with my arm alone. I was good enough to get away with just my arm, so why not just let it ride? I thought that would always be the case.”
After arriving at Missouri, college football proved to be remarkably different. Going against the Southeastern Conference’s pipeline of NFL talent week after week, Lock quickly found out a strong arm alone wasn’t enough.
To succeed at Mizzou, Lock needed a crash course in Football 101. He had to broaden his understanding of defenses, learn about protections, refine his mechanics — all of the details he glossed over while winging 55-mph spirals past befuddled high school defenders.
It’s taken two years working against a steep learning curve, but Lock believes his knowledge of the game has caught up with his physical tools and he’s poised for a big season.
Proof that’s more than the usual training-camp bluster can be found in the new level of trust he has earned from offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.
“His freshman year, he didn’t know much about reading a defense or playing the position,” second-year Mizzou coach Barry Odom said. “That drastically improved last year. I saw a different player already in spring ball than he was last year, and in a good way, and I think we are going to see that much more of a jump going into his junior season.”
The road’s been rocky at times, but Lock’s evolution as Mizzou’s quarterback is a major reason the Tigers aim to become surprise contenders once again in the SEC East.
“You’re always continuing to fine-tune the mechanics, and he’s continued to get better there,” Heupel said. “But I think the biggest thing with him is just an understanding of what it takes to play the position and understanding defenses, understanding our offensive scheme and protections — all of that. He’s so much further ahead than he was at the end of last year. He made strides in spring ball, but just over the summer you can tell already just in the little time I’ve had with him that he’s come a long ways.”
Heupel tried to keep things simple last season for Lock — a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior with an easygoing, unflappable persona.
“We didn’t have much time to dive super deep (into the playbook) and I wasn’t as intelligent of a football player that I think he wanted me to be yet,” Lock said. “We worked really hard to get there, but I needed to go through some things in this offense and learn a couple things.”
The offense was stripped to its bare bones, in part, because of an offensive line that lacked experience and depth, forcing Missouri to operate with a lot of seven-man protections.
That left fewer receivers running patterns, which simplified Lock’s job and all but eliminated the need for progression reads.
Early in the season, Lock often only read one side of the field, but all of those concessions were a double-edged sword.
With Lock still learning how to read defenses and diagnose coverages, it reduced the downfield clutter his eyes had to sift through, but it also made it easier for opposing defenses to blanket the Tigers’ pass-catching targets.
Meanwhile, Heupel called every play from the sideline with no audibles.
All of that is expected to change in 2017 and it’s largely a product of Lock’s growth in understanding the game and mastering Mizzou’s offense.
“I just know the game of football now,” Lock said. “I can go into a room and talk football. I didn’t used to be able to do that, and that was my biggest downfall. I have the arm and I’m mobile enough, but I just needed the brain and the football smarts. It’s finally coming to me.”
Heupel has seen Lock mature in the meeting room, grow as a leader and now trusts that they’re on the same page with how the offense is designed to attack opposing defenses.
“He’s at the point now that there are times he will come back and communicate and I know that his eyes are in the right place and he sees it better than I do, because of where his vantage point is from (on the field),” Heupel said. “That’s the evolution of a quarterback.”
The Tigers’ offense will feature more full-field reads and true pattern progressions.
Lock also has been given the freedom to check out of plays at the line of scrimmage when he doesn’t like what he sees from the defense.
“It was some stuff that we needed to do and I think it’s stuff (Heupel) saw we are capable of doing now,” Lock said. “It goes back to trust. The trust factor in the quarterbacks this year is a lot higher than it was last year.”
Early in his career, Lock struggled to be a vocal leader in the Tigers’ locker room, but even that’s changed during the last six months.
Heupel began having the quarterbacks and receivers meet together instead of as separate position groups at the end of spring practice.
Lock enjoyed those meetings so much, he decided to keep meeting with outside receivers one day and slot receivers the next during the summer.
He also morphed from a timid presence during seven-on-seven sessions, a product of his own uncertainty with the offense last season, into a teacher.
When Lock doesn’t like the way a receiver runs a route, whether the stride is wrong or it’s run too shallow, he speaks up and demands accountability.
“When I got to the point where I knew this job in and out, I could go out there and be vocal,” he said. “It got to the point where I was just so comfortable, it happened. If I see something we need to fix or something that could be better, I’m going to say something.”
It’s yet another reason the Missouri staff’s expectations for Lock are sky high.
“He’s got the ability now to communicate exactly what he wants on a given play or a given route versus a given defense,” Heupel said. “Once you can start articulating that and get those guys on your page, then we’re going to be pretty good.”
Lock is a different quarterback now — studious and seasoned, hardened by failure and hungry for success — but he’s rediscovered the moxie that once football seem so easy.
“It makes it feel like high school again to where I’m just going out having fun,” Lock said. “I’m not worried about remembering this or remembering that. It’s just kind of throwing again now, because everything’s slowing down.”