Spring game: April 16, 6 p.m. ET
This may be sensationalizing things. But it sure seems like just getting back on the field and playing football again will be cathartic for this group, which has been through the ringer in the last year or so.
With Barry Odom now at head coach, a new staff and no more Maty Mauk, this feels like somewhat of a fresh start for a team that turned in a very disappointing 5-7 season last fall.
Even without arguably its best defensive player from 2015 in Kentrell Brothers, Mizzou will have every opportunity to be very good again on that side of the ball.
On offense? Well, that could take some time to fix. But again, we’re talking about a brand new start in so many ways. If the team can just make real progress on offense and get to a bowl game, this group can build some real momentum for 2017.
In any event, the work starts now. (Or rather, it starts in a few weeks.)
THREE BIG QUESTIONS
1. Can coordinator Josh Heupel and the coaches manage to develop Drew Lock?
Lock got thrown into what was a less-than-ideal situation as a true freshman and didn’t fare so well. Half the time he played, he was wondering when he’d get pulled in favor of Maty Mauk — and then wondering if Mauk would ever return.
Well, now Mauk is off the team and backup Eddie Printz has transferred. So Lock is the guy in 2016, for better or worse.
It helps that the team returns almost all of its pass-catchers from 2016 in addition to adding Alabama transfer Chris Black. The defense should be good again as well.
Mizzou isn’t expecting an All-SEC performance out of Lock. But he needs to get more accurate (49.0 percent completion rate) and take much better care of the ball (4 TDs to 8 INTs).
If Lock can become even a mid-pack starter in the SEC in 2016, Heupel and the others will have done their job, and the offensive outlook will be much better entering the ’17 season.
2. Will the team find a go-to player in the backfield?
Russell Hansbrough ran out of eligibility and Morgan Steward retired after a tussle with a bizarre hip injury.
That leaves Ish Witter, who looked very much average in his first two seasons, JUCO transfer Chase Abbington, who ran the ball just six times last year despite the team’s need at the position, Trevon Walters, who has yet to carry at the college level, and a pair of redshirt freshmen — Ryan Williams and Marquise Doherty.
Reinforcements will arrive in the fall in the form of Natrereace Strong, a four-star JUCO transfer, and Damarea Crockett. But the team needs at least incremental improvement from Witter and at least a contribution from one of the other players practicing this spring.
Unless Witter turns into an above-average SEC back, playing behind what could be a challenged offensive line, the running game may not be so good in 2016.
3. Will Missouri deploy a lot more 3-4 alignment on defense?
SB Nation’s Bill C. did an excellent job of breaking down what the depth chart may look like for the team’s 3-4 alignment. He also highlighted the work of the Columbia Tribune, which pointed out that with Barry Odom as coordinator, the team spent 23 percent of its defensive snaps in a 3-4 look compared to 57 percent in 4-3.
Even if the 3-4 becomes the base defense, expect to see multiple looks from Mizzou all year.
Still, the percentages could shift in a significant way. Terry Beckner Jr. seems like he walked out of a lab designed to produce 3-4 defensive ends. Josh Augusta is an ideal mountain man at nose tackle. And Rickey Hatley (or, gulp, a healthy Harold Brantley) could occupy the other end.
Charles Harris, as Bill C. espoused, seems to fit the profile of an excellent SAM linebacker.
So, at least, if Odom wants to make a slow conversion toward more 3-4, the pieces are there to make it work.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
- WR Chris Black: Mizzou’s receivers should get a boost from the Alabama transfer, who never could crack the Tide rotation in a meaningful way. A composite four-star recruit out of high school, Black has one year of eligibility remaining. The Tigers hope that he becomes part of a trio of leading men with Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore.
- OT Tyler Howell: Originally a member of the 2015 class, Howell did not qualify academically and thus delayed his enrollment until January. But with four of the team’s five starters on the offensive line departing, including both tackles, the 6-foot-8, 300-pound Howell will compete for immediate playing time. Mizzou’s coaching staff said he needs “a great offseason” to be in good enough shape to play in the SEC. But his experience at the JUCO level should help.
- K Tucker McCann: The Kohl’s Kicking service rated him as the top prep kicker of the 2016 class. He set an Illinois high school state record by making a 60-yard field goal in 2014. Andrew Baggett has graduated, so McCann — an early enrollee — will compete to become his replacement.
OFFENSIVE STARTERS TO REPLACE
- WR Wesley Leftwich
- LT Connor McGovern
- C Evan Boehm
- RG Mitch Hall
- RT Taylor Chappell
- RB Russell Hansbrough
Losing four of five starters from what was, even being generous, a mediocre offensive line is concerning.
That said, I thought the previous staff mishandled the offensive line badly. McGovern was much, much better at guard, and playing him out of position took away the line’s greatest strength. Also, the team negated what should’ve been an experience advantage by playing musical chairs with all the starters throughout spring and fall camp, trying out different combinations.
So yes, there will be at least four new starters. It will be weird seeing someone other than Boehm start at center. But, with the proper management — and if players like Howell and Malik Cuellar develop — this unit may not be so bad.
No offense to Leftwich, but he was more of a one-year placeholder at receiver.
Losing Hansbrough is significant, but he wasn’t himself for much of last season due to a nasty high ankle sprain. If the offensive line can play decent, the backfield can match last year’s production at minimum, even without Hansbrough.
DEFENSIVE STARTERS TO REPLACE
- LB Kentrell Brothers
- CB Kenya Dennis
- S Ian Simon
Brothers was one of the most underrated defensive players in all of college football last season. This roster remains well-equipped at linebacker, starting with Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. But there’s no one that is going to play at the ridiculous pace that Brothers managed last season with 152 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble and 3 blocked kicks.
Dennis and Simon both were important members of the secondary, but they’re not irreplaceable like Brothers. Cortland Browning, John Gibson, Thomas Wilson and Logan Cheadle all are likely to compete for more playing time, and two of them should occupy the vacated starting spots in the secondary.
TOP RETURNERS BY CATEGORY
Top returning passer: Drew Lock (1,332 yards in 2015)
Top returning rusher: Ish Witter (518 yards in 2015)
Top returning receiver: J’Mon Moore (350 yards in 2015)
Top returning tackler: Michael Scherer (93 in 2015)
Top returning pass rusher: Walter Brady, Charles Harris (7 sacks in 2015)
Top returning pass defender: John Gibson, Aarion Penton, Anthony Sherrils, Brady (1 INT in 2015)
POSITION OF CONCERN: OFFENSIVE TACKLE
We’ve already touched on this, but McGovern and Chappell are gone.
JUCO transfers Cuellar and Howell both were supposed to compete for playing time last year. Cuellar saw a grand total of three snaps, while Howell took a year off from football after failing to qualify academically. So neither of those players are sure things.
It’s possible that Nate Crawford, who started eight games at left guard last year, could slide over to tackle as a redshirt junior. Paul Adams played sparingly at right tackle at the end of last season as former offensive line coach A.J. Ricker seemed to be grooming him for 2016, but there’s a new position coach now.
At last check, redshirt freshman tackle Tanner Owen still needed to add some bulk and muscle. That leaves junior tackle Clay Rhodes and sophomore tackle Mike Fairchild to compete for spots, both of whom showed at least some promise last spring.
Overall, this isn’t a very inspiring group. There are a lot of unknowns. But last year’s line didn’t play well, either, so perhaps the bar will be set low enough that with a new position coach, two players will emerge well enough to exceed it.