COLUMBIA, Mo. — He made it look so easy. In his first college start, Missouri freshman quarterback Drew Lock coolly led Missouri to a home victory over South Carolina. The game plan that day, Oct. 3, 2015, was scripted for the rookie to make safe throws and lean on his running game. But greatness seemed imminent.
After the win, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel pulled him in close on Faurot Field as the Tigers celebrated. "You don't know how good you're going to be," he told the floppy-haired 18-year-old.
And he had no idea what the next week had in store.
Seven days later, Florida's defense turned Lock into a human piñata. A Gators defense featuring 13 future NFL draft picks, including eight first- and second-round selections, intercepted Lock twice, returned one for a touchdown and sacked him three times.
"Half a year ago I was playing basketball in the Suburban Big Six Conference in Lee's Summit, Missouri," Lock reflected this summer. "Then you go play those guys and they're doing nothing but trying to take your head off because they want to go make millions of dollars."
Watching the carnage unfold in Florida's 21-3 win, Andy Lock hoped his son could make it off the field in one piece.
"I'll never forget seeing him walk out of the locker room that night," said Andy, a Mizzou offensive lineman in the 1980s. "He was walking toward me just limping. One of his shoulders was hanging down. He had his head cocked to the side. I'm like, oh my God, look at him. He's physically beaten down. I was really worried."
The worries continued the rest of what undoubtedly became the most turbulent season in Mizzou history. Lock only became the starter because incumbent Maty Mauk couldn't stay out of trouble. In November came the campus protests, soon followed by a team strike launched by the African-American players. Then came news of Pinkel's cancer diagnosis and stunning retirement. The Tigers won only once more with Lock behind center, and by season's end the punishment had nearly broken the teenage quarterback. He struggled to maintain weight on his 6-4 frame, dipping below 200 pounds late in the year. The mobility and athleticism he relied on as a high schooler vanished.
"As a father I was truly worried for him after every game and just his mental makeup after that year," Andy said. "I don't care how good you are or how tough you are, but with that amount of negativity and being that young, I was seriously concerned about his ability to tie up his bootstraps to move forward."
Nearly three years and 67 touchdown passes later, Lock carries around a unique perspective on those grueling two months. In hindsight, he's grateful all hell broke loose on his watch.
"Looking back on it people ask if it was worth it," Lock said. "I'd say I'd go through it all over again to learn what I know now and take it to the end of my career. I'd rather be off to a rough start than a rough finish."
For Lock, last year's All-Southeastern Conference first-team quarterback, the finish has started. Now a senior, he's playing in a third offense under a third coordinator but believes he's equipped to fulfill the expectations, establish a legacy and audition for future employment in the NFL.
That's a lot on one 21-year-old's plate.
That's OK. He's starving.
Lock's final college lap can only be told within context of his first college offseason. After the Tigers finished 5-7, Lock came home to Lee's Summit for the holiday break. He went to work with personal quarterback coach Justin Hoover, who'd been instructing Lock privately since his sophomore year at Lee's Summit High. They trained together 21 days over a 30-day span, working on footwork, arm slot and other mechanics. Lock worked out of the shotgun exclusively in college, but with Hoover he took countless snaps under center and mastered the seven-step drops that are more common in pro-style offenses.
They called their hours together "lonely work."
Mark your calendars 🗓🐯 the newest addition to your Mizzou collection is almost ready! pic.twitter.com/it8R4Rs1c9— TigerScholarshipFund (@MizzouTSF) July 23, 2018
"When nobody's watching what are you doing to master your craft?" said Hoover, now the head coach at Shawnee Mission East High. "Nobody does it more or more efficiently than Drew."
During those sessions they talked, too. One day Lock opened up about his rough freshman season. His confidence was battered. Hoover worked to repair the damage.
"The biggest thing I tried to accomplish is when he left and went back to school in January he was going to walk back there like he was Tom Brady," Hoover said. "I told him, 'Everything you dreamed of is still out there in front of you. Don't let this do anything but fuel you to get better and move that locker room forward.'"
New coach Barry Odom dismissed Mauk in late January, and by then Lock started to click with new coordinator Josh Heupel, whose no-huddle spread offense capitalized on Lock's strong arm and helped the sophomore rebuild his self-belief.
The Tigers won only four games in 2016, but Lock made progress, throwing for 23 touchdowns and 3,339 yards. As a junior, his production soared to an SEC-record 44 touchdowns. He ranked fourth nationally in passer rating (165.7). His 3,964 passing yards ranked third in team history. More important, the Tigers got back to winning, finishing the regular season 7-5 before a loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl.
By then Heupel and his offense were off to UCF. As much as his system sparked Lock's success, Hoover calls some of the statistics "fake news."
Heupel's passing game was defined by tempo. Often the receivers on the back side of the play didn't even run routes. Lock didn't have to scan the entire field and go through conventional progressions. That's why, Hoover believes, Lock has never posted great accuracy numbers. He's completed just 54.5 percent of his throws at Mizzou in part, Hoover said, because the offense didn't give Lock enough "built-in completions."
"Sometimes if you have two guys going on a route, and there's not a third or fourth guy or a check-down, your accuracy is just a number, in my opinion," Hoover said, "because there's balls you have to throw away or you're taking a shot (downfield) and just trying to not throw it short."
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"I think (accuracy) is actually a strength of his," he added. "His arm talent allows him to change arm trajectory and arm angle and tempo on the ball as well as anyone in the country. I don't know if he's always been able to showcase that."
All of which went into Lock's decision to pass on the 2018 NFL draft. He hadn't been exposed to NFL-style route concepts and he figured his accuracy numbers might haunt his stock. A new coordinator with an NFL background could change that, he reasoned.
But just to be safe, Lock's family secured a loss of value insurance policy in case he'd suffer a serious injury before next year's draft. The policy's value is based on Lock's draft projection for 2019. Andy Lock declined to disclose the dollar amount, but said, "They had him projected high. I'll leave it at that."
In Derek Dooley, Lock has found an offensive coordinator with those coveted NFL chops. The former head coach at Louisiana Tech and Tennessee has spent seven years on NFL staffs in Miami and Dallas, the last five as the Cowboys receivers coach. He's installed a pro-style system with full-field progressions, more developed passing routes and concepts Lock will have to master in the NFL. More important, Lock believes the new offense's slower tempo will take stress off a defense that's been overworked the last two years. Mizzou is pushing Lock for the Heisman Trophy, but he's only consumed with team success. He's well aware MU was 0-6 against teams with winning records last year. The last two seasons, Lock was 2-13 against teams that reached bowl games. That's not the legacy he hopes to leave.
"I haven't heard him say once I hope I can throw as many touchdowns or throw for 4,000 yards," Andy Lock said. "He doesn't care about that. He does not care. He just wants to win, and the way to do that is have a higher completion percentage and manage the game better."
For that to happen, Lock and Dooley needed to bond this offseason like speed daters. By the start of camp they could finish each other's sentences in the meeting room, Lock said.
"It's a different feeling when you know what your O.C. is thinking in his head," Lock said. "It makes it more of a chess match, but instead of being by yourself you have another guy on the sideline knowing exactly what to do."
"Trust is critical," Andy said. "They're on the same page."
Lock and Dooley share more than a playbook. Back in the SEC after a failed run at Tennessee, Dooley can relate to Lock's early struggles in the spotlight, the doubts about his ability on the game's biggest stage. When he came to Mizzou in January, Dooley was only vaguely aware of Lock's first three college seasons. He's since studied him closely. He's enamored with his natural ability but just as impressed with his work habits and toughness.
Dooley is captivated by what he calls Lock's "survival skills."
"There's a lot of quarterbacks who went through what Drew went through and it could have crushed their career because their competitive makeup wasn't like Drew's," Dooley said. "It's easy to lose confidence and say, 'I can't do it.' That's basically what his experience did. But it toughened him up. It gave him a little edge that he wanted to prove to people he could play. It was his blessing, where it could be a curse for somebody else."
"It's Darwinism," Dooley added. "The strong figure it out and come out of it better. That's really what Drew did."
This article is written by Dave Matter from St. Louis Post-Dispatch and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.