5 things Missouri needs to accomplish during its spring game
Name: Black & Gold game
Time: 5 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network Plus (via WatchESPN)
Location: Memorial Stadium/Faurot Field
Format: Full scrimmage, as far as we know
Despite two touchdown passes in the team’s second scrimmage Tuesday, Missouri’s offense has struggled most of the spring.
The running game and one of the country’s best pair of defensive ends served as the catalysts for last season’s SEC East title. This year, it appears the running game and a more balanced overall front seven will be the strong points.
But the team needs to shore up several potentially-subversive weaknesses, namely at receiver, quarterback, the secondary and positioning along the offensive line.
It’s no surprise those things feature prominently as we look at five things the team needs to accomplish during its spring game.
1. Catch the darn ball
According to the Columbia Tribune, Missouri’s receivers and tight ends combined for an astounding 18 drops in the team’s first two scrimmages.
With as much trouble as the Tigers have at receiver, the fact that the team could get a pass-catcher open that many times, and successfully throw them the ball, only to have it hit their hands and then fall to the ground — or, in one case, into the hands of a defensive back — is all sorts of troubling.
The receivers also have committed a few false starts during the scrimmages, so there’s a lot to clean up.
Nate Brown likely remains out due to injury, but J’Mon Moore and Wesley Leftwich should play prominent roles as likely starters in the fall. The team continues to experiment with converted cornerback Raymond Wingo. And at least one player from a group of three redshirt freshmen — Keyon Dilosa, DeSean Blair and Thomas Richard — needs to step up.
2. Figure out the offensive tackles
Evan Boehm will start for Mizzou at center. A healthy Connor McGovern will start somewhere. Beyond that, we don’t know what the Tigers’ offensive line will look like this fall.
Left tackle is the initial domino. Taylor Chappell, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound redshirt senior, spent most of the spring practicing there after ending 2014 at right tackle. Chappell kicked inside to left guard in the most recent scrimmage with McGovern hurt, as junior-college transfer Malik Cuellar got his first work with the starting offense.
(Cuellar began the spring third on the depth chart, but worked his way into a second-team role quickly.)
Before the injury, coach Gary Pinkel hinted that Mizzou would at least give strong consideration to playing McGovern at tackle. He started on the right side for the first several games last season, but played much better at right guard.
Nate Crawford and Clay Rhodes have alternated series at right tackle, and junior-college transfer Tyler Howell, another potential competitor, will join the team this summer.
The Tigers may not have all the answers after the spring game, but it’s about time the team narrows down a serious of options for the starting five offensive linemen entering the summer. The passing game has enough issues to worry about a lack of continuity from a seasoned group of linemen.
3. See clear progress from QB Maty Mauk
The junior has started 13 SEC games, including the SEC championship. That’s nearly two full seasons.
What’s that you say? Mauk is at his best throwing downfield on the run, a sort of school-yard football that extends plays and can get defensive backs out of position? OK.
But a starting quarterback who bails within two seconds on the majority of the snaps, making risky throws across his body as he sprints toward the boundary, wins SEC division titles in spite of that and thanks to a great defense. Not because of it.
Mauk will make his share of plays when the pocket legitimately breaks down, but he needs to learn when to step up and rifle the ball downfield while remaining between the tackles. Also, he misread defenders dropping into zone coverage a few times last season, and his completion percentage (53.4 in 2014) is too low for a spread quarterback.
Those kinds of things can’t happen this year with such inexperienced receivers and essentially a year and a half of starting experience to his credit. Mizzou needs to be able to see clear progress from Mauk in Saturday’s game.
4. Prove a seamless transition to new defensive coordinator Barry Odom
Linebackers Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer excelled last season not only because of the Tigers’ strong defensive line, but because they started to play instinctive football during the second half of the schedule.
Missouri has recruited a bunch of undervalued assets to play defense — above-average athletes who need to develop fundamentals and an understanding of their responsibilities.
One of the presumed reasons Pinkel hired Odom was to keep some continuity from defensive coordinator Dave Steckel’s defense. Odom may revive the use of an occasional 3-4 front, among other changes. But if the transition is fairly smooth, we should see that the Tigers’ defensive players are playing fast and loose, rather than needing to process and think on every snap.
5. Develop depth at cornerback beyond the two starters
The first step is identifying two solid starting cornerbacks, which Mizzou has done. Kenya Dennis got more and more comfortable last season as a junior-college transfer, and if he can pick his spots to be aggressive, could be one of the better corners in the SEC.
Aarion Penton is the team’s best pure cover corner, and assuming he’s straightened out a bit off the field, should challenge Dennis as the No. 1 defensive back on the team.
But in 2015, it’s going to be hard to play outstanding SEC defense without developing three and even four adequate cornerbacks.
Mizzou got away with youth and a lack of depth at corner last season because of one of the nation’s best pass rushes and a strong run defense. But the team needs players like John Gibson, Logan Cheadle and David Johnson to grow into bigger contributors. We’ll see where they stand Saturday.
Oh, and identifying a second starting safety alongside Ian Simon is important as well.