Mizzou defensive lineman Akial Byers looking to step into leadership role in 2021
As Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz was being whisked away to one of his dozen-plus appearances at SEC Media Days on July 22, he had to pause with an elevator opening right in front of him.
Appearing after the doors opened on the third floor of The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Alabama was Akial Byers, Drinkwitz's hand-selected defensive player who would speak with reporters at the league's preseason event.
Byers' gray suit, white shirt and yellow tie impressed Drinkwitz with how his 6-foot-3, 288-pound defensive lineman cleaned up.
He'll be dressed differently for most other occasions this year.
Once Byers found a comfortable spot on a couch in front of around a dozen local media members, he talked about what to expect from him and the Tigers in 2021.
'Where we go, the team goes'
"We've improved tremendously with many returning starters," Byers said of the defensive line. "We have plenty of athletic ability and balance on the D-line. ... Where we go, the team goes."
Drinkwitz decided to bring Byers and offensive lineman Case Cook with him to SEC Media Days, signaling that if you play in the trenches, you can be on television and it's not just about the skill-position players.
"Everything starts up front. If the trenches are weak, then your team isn't going to go far," Byers said.
Personally, Byers exercised his extra year of eligibility allowed by the NCAA amid the coronavirus pandemic, his fifth and final year in Columbia.
"My mission on the season is just give it all I got. I came back for a reason," Byers said. "That's to be a leader and be more vocal. I felt like I left some things on the table last year. So, after discussing it with a couple of guys on the D-line, and their decision was to come back. So I was like 'Okay, so we're pretty much on the same page.' So we can get this thing rolling."
New number, new mantra
For his final year in Columbia, Byers switched his jersey to No. 0, the second season the NCAA has allowed athletes to wear that lone digit after his four previous years wearing No. 97.
While the switch in jersey numbers might not be that meaningful by itself, it does signal a different mantra coming from Byers.
"I hear a little bit here and there because I'm not really like a spokesperson. I'm just more like get-to-work. I'm trying to be more vocal with my leadership and actually be more of an example," Byers said.
Also new this offseason is defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who replaced Brick Haley on Drinkwitz's staff.
"A lot of work. He pushes us to get better every day no matter where it's at, on the field, or just in the weight room," Byers said of Franklin. "He wants us out there working together, working on our footwork, hand placement, anything, or even just learning the playbook.
"And I think that's a big thing. He teaches us something new every day. So every time we go into a meeting room, it's like you're in the classroom learning new things. So I take every day we're meeting seriously."
Looking forward to the season
As for others on the defensive line, Byers points to Isaiah McGuire as the player he's seen most rapidly improve on the Tigers since the end of the 2020 season.
Byers' view of his own improvement focuses on specific details of his game.
"I feel like I'm a great run-stopper. I would like to improve on my pass-rush skills," Byers said. "I can do that and I just felt like I left it on the table and I most definitely can improve in those areas."
Missouri's 2021 regular season ends in Byers' hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Byers helped Fayetteville High School to state championships in both 2015 and 2016 and was selected to play in the Under Armour All-American Game following his prep career. He also pledged to Missouri when Barry Odom, now Arkansas defensive coordinator, was the Tigers' head coach.
"Since I've been at Mizzou, we haven't lost to them," Byers said. "I love playing Arkansas. It's very fun."
At Byers' position group, two members of the Tigers' 2020 defensive line have since transferred to Arkansas in Columbia native Tre Williams and Markell Utsey, who hails from Little Rock.
"Everybody has their own journey and that was part of theirs," Byers said of Utsey and Williams. "I decided to stay here. ... Long friends, they're my boys.
"I've been playing with them for about four years. So it's just part of the journey. I told them, 'Just finish the journey, finish the goal.' We all got the same goal, we're going to meet back up later, hopefully."
As far as what he'd like to see personally accomplished by the time he gets in the trenches against the Razorbacks, Byers didn't admit to any particular sack or tackle total.
"My goals for myself, just be the best I can be on the field, leave it all on the field," he said.
Contact Eric Blum at email@example.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.