Early in his senior season at Spanish Fort high school in Alabama, Kris Abrams-Draine started at wide receiver. He also served as the team’s punt and kickoff returner, started on the defensive side of the ball at cornerback and occasionally got the ball as a runner, as well.
Yet after the second game of Spanish Fort’s season, head coach Ben Blackmon decided Abrams-Draine needed to be more involved. His solution: move Abrams-Draine to the one position that touches the ball every snap, quarterback.
“We just said, hey man, we had a young team and he was the best player on our team and we weren’t getting him the ball enough, and so we said, look, we’re just going to snap it to him every time,” Blackmon explained.
Blackmon remembers Abrams-Draine’s response when asked if he’d consider playing quarterback: “Let’s do it coach. Whatever it takes, I want to win.”
Indeed, winning followed. Abrams-Draine led the team to the Class 6A state title game, where Spanish Fort lost to Oxford by a single point. During one game, Blackmon said he asked Abrams-Draine to carry the ball 36 times. He rushed for 1,745 yards and 19 touchdowns on the season while throwing for another 723 yards and nine scores. The performance earned him Mr. Football honors in the state of Alabama.
“He’s probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached,” Blackmon said. “He has explosion, he knows how to play offensively. … He’s got good speed. Very smart, high IQ football player.”
Abrams-Draine’s most recent position switch may not result in quite such gaudy statistics, but he appears to be adapting just as successfully. After spending the majority of his first season at Missouri on the offensive side of the ball, he has transitioned to cornerback. When the Tigers take the field against Central Michigan to open the year, Abrams-Draine is expected to be the starter at nickelback, or slot corner.
“He was a very good juice player on offense, came on the defense and as you can see, got the starting job, which I’m really proud of him for,” safety Martez Manuel said of Abrams-Draine. “I’ve seen in his approach all summer long, I kind of knew in the back of my head he was going to be that guy this season. So to see him live to his potential and get the starting job, I’m really proud of him for that.”
Abrams-Draine’s journey to becoming a starter in the Missouri secondary has been circuitous. Just the fact that he ended up on the Tiger roster resulted from the coaching staff taking a leap of faith.
Abrams-Draine drew plenty of SEC attention as a high school prospect, initially committing to LSU before flipping to Ole Miss. But his grades put him at risk for failing to qualify academically. When Lane Kiffin replaced Matt Luke as the Rebels’ head coach, he urged Abrams-Draine to look elsewhere.
Around the same time, Eli Drinkwitz took over for Barry Odom at Missouri and had to scour the ranks of uncommitted players to build upon a half-full recruiting class between the early signing period and national signing day. He liked Abrams-Draine’s dynamic skillset, and the Tigers had room to spare, so he extended an offer. Abrams-Draine committed, then got the A’s he needed in English and math during the second semester of his senior year in order to qualify, according to Blackmon.
“I’ll be honest with you, coach Drink took a chance on Kris,” Blackmon said. “Because coming out of high school, Kris’ grades, they weren’t great. We thought he would make it, and he did. He worked his tail off coming into his senior year to get where he needed to be. But a lot of schools backed off of him because of his grade situation. Got to the end of his senior year and he made it.”
Once he arrived at Missouri, Abrams-Draine primarily played slot receiver. But like in high school, the coaches found other ways to get him the ball. He lined up some at running back, rushing the ball three times last season, and saw early action at punt returner.
He struggled early, particularly with fielding punts. Abrams-Draine muffed a pair of punts during Missouri’s win over LSU, one of which LSU recovered, leading to a touchdown on the following play. So, with the team short on defensive backs late in the season due to a combination of injuries and COVID-19 contact tracing, the coaching staff asked Abrams-Draine to try his hand at his other high school position, cornerback. After an already ragtag unit saw then-cornerback Jaylon Carlies ejected due to a targeting penalty at Mississippi State, Abrams-Draine replaced him. He wound up playing 19 snaps at corner.
The coaching staff liked what it saw enough to ask Abrams-Draine after the season to ask him if he’d be willing to make the switch to defensive back permanent. Like he had in high school, he agreed. Even as Missouri has bolstered its depth at the position — after the return of Chris Shearin, who opted out last season, and the arrival of Tulsa graduate transfers Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV, the Tigers now have six players expected to play meaningful snaps at corner — Abrams-Draine has stood out.
“To be able to do that, I think it’s pretty remarkable for us to have two players who played significant minutes for us last year on the offensive side of the ball, in Week One, on defense, they’re going to play significant minutes for us,” Drinkwitz said of Abrams-Draine and safety Shawn Robinson. “The only way you can do that is to dedicate yourself. One, you’ve got to be a tremendous athlete. But you’ve also got to dedicate yourself to knowing the schemes and putting in the extra work and extra hours, and I think both of those guys, I know they have done that. I’m excited to see how that bears fruit.”
Not only is Abrams-Draine expected to see “significant minutes” Saturday, he will start at nickel, having beat out Shearin for the top spot there. Safety Jalani Williams called nickelback a key position in first-year defensive coordinator Steve Wilks’ scheme.
“Being at that nickel spot in our defense is like, you’re a key factor,” Williams said. “So I feel like he’s the right guy for it. He’s going to communicate with us, he’s going to make the plays that we need out of that position. So I feel comfortable with him in there.”
Often, a position switch signifies a last-ditch effort to find a role for a player who couldn’t crack the two-deep at his original spot. Rarely does it lead to such quick success.
But Blackmon isn’t surprised to hear that Abrams-Draine has taken to his new position so quickly. He’s seen Abrams-Draine shine at cornerback before — he intercepted two passes as a senior and returned both for touchdowns. He’s also watched Abrams-Draine use his athleticism and football IQ to thrive at a new position, even on short notice. Wherever the team needs Abrams-Draine most, Blackmon said, he’ll find a way to contribute.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Blackmon said. “… Kris is a team player. He is a team player and he wants to win. He understands he can’t do it all by himself, he just wants to win.”
A week after he speculated that the Missouri roster had more than 85 percent of its players vaccinated against COVID-19, Drinkwitz confirmed Wednesday that the Tigers have cleared that benchmark. Drinkwitz said that, as of Monday, more than 88 percent of Missouri players had been vaccinated. Four more players received their second dose of the vaccine Tuesday.
“I do know for a fact that we’re over 88 percent vaccinated for the team and that we had four players vaccinated yesterday,” Drinkwitz said. “So with that addition, I’m not sure where that throws us, but we were over 88 percent with a couple guys getting their second shots on Monday.”
The SEC officially announced Monday that teams that don’t have enough players to contest a game this season will forfeit, and the matchup will not be rescheduled. Eclipsing the 85 percent mark should make that much less likely for Missouri. After clearing that threshold, the team only has to test unvaccinated players for COVID-19, unless a vaccinated player exhibits symptoms. Vaccinated players also will not be subject to contact-tracing after a positive test. Unvaccinated players will be tested once a week, roughly 72 hours prior to kickoff.
Adding to the uncertainty that always surrounds a season-opener, Missouri’s first opponent may not have its coach on the sidelines. Central Michigan announced Wednesday that head coach Jim McElwain underwent surgery Wednesday for an appendectomy. Assistant head coach Tim Skipper will oversee the team until McElwain returns.
Central Michigan has not provided a timetable for McElwain’s absence. Speaking with media members Wednesday afternoon, Skipper said the team is “hoping and praying” he can recover in time to travel to Missouri. He also added “coach Mac has prepared us for situations like this.”
Skipper, who coaches Central Michigan’s linebackers, is in his second season with the Chippewas. If McElwain is unable to make the trip to Missouri, first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay, who has spent the past two seasons coaching the Chippewa wide receivers, will take full control of the offensive play-calling.