While the coronavirus pandemic continues to shroud the 2020 football season in uncertainty, new Missouri State coach Bobby Petrino is sure of one thing.
“I feel like we’ll be able to score points,” he told host Art Hains during a video chat in late May.
Petrino, fast approaching his 37th year in coaching and his 16th as a head man, has always been known for his offensive acumen, having notably coached a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback at Louisville, Lamar Jackson, in 2016. (Jackson, now with the Baltimore Ravens, was also named NFL MVP in 2019.)
But when Petrino was hired in January, he inherited a team that managed just 170 points while going 1-10 in 2019, the last of five seasons under the previous coach, Dave Steckel. The Bears’ average of 15.5 points a game was 120th among the nation’s 124 FCS teams. They were also 122nd in rushing offense (74.1 yards per game) and 116th in total offense (284.2 yards per game).
Petrino is nonetheless optimistic, as he seeks to lead the Bears to their first winning season since 2009, when they went 6-5 under Terry Allen.
“It might take a little time to get everything put together, but we’re not very patient,” Petrino told Hains. “We want to make sure we can do it right away.”
His outlook is based on the fact that MSU returns a veteran offensive line, as well as the fact that he was able to woo some promising newcomers. High on the list is quarterback Jaden Johnson, a transfer from Southern Mississippi.
The 6-2, 208-pound Johnson committed to Louisville when Petrino was coaching there, but after Petrino’s dismissal reopened his recruitment and headed off to Hattiesburg. He redshirted last fall, but liked the idea of reuniting with Petrino, “because of his intelligence for the game of football,” as he told the Springfield News-Leader.
“He wants me to come in and be the starter,” Johnson told that publication, while adding that he doesn’t want anything given to him: “I want to work for the job and show, ‘Hey, I’m the new sheriff in town, and this is how we’re going to do it.’”
Petrino also added a potential game-breaking wide receiver in Tarrell Roberts, a speedy 5-7, 155-pounder from Georgia. In all the new coach augmented the 22-man recruiting class assembled in December by Steckel and his staff by adding 10 newcomers, seven of them junior-college transfers. Besides Johnson and Roberts, Petrino seems particularly high on edge rusher Isaiah Sayles, who had 10 sacks last year at San Diego Mesa Community College.
But Petrino and his revamped team were denied spring practice when the campus was shut down by the COVID-19 pandemic. His players were allowed to return to Springfield for voluntary workouts on June 1, but conditioning is “the great unknown,” as he put it to Hains. He is encouraged, however, at how quickly they have been able to pick up the new system through Zoom meetings with the coaching staff.
“If they can say the same words we say, and they draw things up the same way we draw them,” Petrino said, “then I think we’re getting closer to being able to understand what’s going on.”
Now it’s a matter of translating everything to the field. Petrino hopes to have as many as six weeks of preseason practice to get things ironed out, and is optimistic the season will begin as scheduled, on Sept. 5 at Oklahoma. But again, the pandemic has left a great deal up in the air.
“We’ve got to find (out) what our identity is very quickly,” he said.
Though he would like to believe he has at least some idea about that.