Game back home ‘personal’ for two

Fayetteville – Barrett Bannister and Akeel Byers used to attend University of Arkansas football games at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

“I grew up on that court,” Bannister said. “I still have a lot of memories there. I can hear the announcer’s voice in my head now.”

Byers, like Bannister, was a top player at Fayetteville High School.

“I always went to the Arkansas games when I was younger,” Byers said. “I was a pig lover at some point.”

Bannister and Byers will be at Frank Broyles Stadium instead of Razorback when Missouri plays #25 in Arkansas on Friday.

Bannister is the major recipient of Year 5 Tigers and has strong family ties to Arkansas. His grandfather, Harold Horton, was an Arkansas player and assistant coach and CEO of the Razorback Foundation. His uncle, Air Force special teams coordinator and linebacker coach Tim Horton, was an Arkansas player and assistant coach.

Byers is a senior defensive lineman and senior, playing his fifth season after the NCAA awarded an extra year of eligibility to players due to COVID-19.

“Obviously these guys are going to be excited to play,” said Missouri coach Eli Drenkewitz, who grew up in Alma. “Fayetteville High School is a stone’s throw from the Donald W. Reynolds Razorback. So I think there’s going to be some extra tension there, but they played a lot of football.”

There was a time when Bannister and Byers hoped to play for the Razorbacks.

Bannister seized the opportunity to join Missouri as the defensive coordinator of choice, meaning he earned a spot on the roster when he reported to pre-season camp as a freshman in 2017. Barry Odom, in his second season as defensive coordinator for Arkansas after four years as defensive coordinator placed Missouri head coach Bannister On a scholarship as a sophomore.

“Coach Odom has given me the opportunity of a lifetime to be able to play for the SEC, and play against the teams I grew up watching,” Bannister said. “I will be forever grateful to him for that.

“Then when Coach Drink came here, he still trusted me to keep me on a scholarship.”

Brett Belima, Arkansas coach from 2013-2017, offered Bannister a chance to try walking the following spring.

It wasn’t something I was looking to do,” Bannister said. “I thought I proved in high school football that I was a good enough player and deserved a favorite place to walk.”

Odom took advice from quarterback Taylor Powell, also from Fayetteville, and reached out to Bannister.

“To be honest with you, then [Arkansas] He gave me this favorite, Bannister said, “I probably would have been there. But I’m thankful I ended up here.”

“I think God got me to the right place.”

Byers was a 4-star recruit, but he was academically eligible late — past the national signature date — and Alabama withdrew an offer of the scholarship. Belima Byers did not submit because he was not qualified.

When Byers qualified academically, Missouri submitted an offer. Byers said Arkansas had shown belated interest in enlisting, but he was already committed to Missouri and Odom.

“It’s always personal to me, and I’m sure it’s personal to Barrett because it’s our home,” Byers said. “They recruited both of us very lightly, and we take it personally when we play with these guys.”

Bannister said playing Arkansas is definitely personal.

“I think whenever someone says they don’t want you and they don’t think you’re good enough, whether they are inherently mean or not…it puts a chip on my shoulder,” Bannister said. “It has been a motivation for me throughout my college career.”

Bannister will play his 43rd game for Missouri today. He has 86 passes for 748 yards and two touchdowns, including 12 for 120 yards against Arkansas in the past two seasons to help the Tigers win 24-14, 50-48.

“Barrett Bannister is a young man who came here and earned whatever he was given, including the scholarship,” Drenkowitz said. “The master was dependable and embraced his role, no matter what it was.

“When he was playing a lot of actors, or he wasn’t. When he was a third-class specialist, when he was a first-class specialist. The guy gives us everything he has.”

Byers played in 51 games with a career total of 81 tackles, 9 pick-ups for 39-yard losses, 2 fouls and 1 man-forced stumble.

In Missouri’s 38-0 win over Arkansas in 2018, Byers regained a stumble in the end zone for relegation.

“Scoring my first touchdown against my home country was just crazy,” Byers said. “It’s been a journey. I just wanted to keep going, always improving every day and helping my team win.”

Drenkewitz said he has seen Byers mature and become an essential part of the defense.

“I just think about his stamina, how much he played, and then the fact that he came back last year,” Drenkewitz said. “He has really committed himself to our football team and being a captain.”

After Tennessee beat Missouri 62-24 on October 2, Drenkwitz fired defensive line coach Jethro Franklin and rookie analyst Al Davis, formerly a Razorback, for coaching the position. Drenkowitz also tore up the depth chart and said players have to work to win their positions.

“After the Tennessee game, with my changes, on Sunday Akeel came into my office and was just asking how he could help,” Drenkewitz said. “He was disappointed with the way everything was going and wanted to know how he could help, how he could lead.

“So the legacy he’s going to leave for me here at the University of Missouri is a guy who really cared about this team and cared about this program, and he cared about leaving it better than he found it. I think he did.”

Bannister said Byers has been resilient throughout his time in Missouri.

“I think Akeel has been consistent in his behavior every single day and has appeared for five years now with a smile on his face ready to go to work,” Bannister said. “No matter what his job is, no matter what his role is.

“He’s someone who has been a really good player for us and a big part of the reason for our success.”

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