Top 5 spring practice priorities: Missouri
Once again the Missouri Tigers enter spring practice as the defending SEC East champions, but needing to replace several important outgoing starters and develop young players at other positions.
Many outside of Columbia, Mo., aren’t sure what to make of the team. Should we suspend all expectations and just pick Mizzou to win until proven otherwise? Or will this be the season that the East Division starts to recover, and swallows the Tigers pack to the middle of the pack in the process?
Mizzou’s football program boasts about how well it develops talent. Well, spring is the time to shine for talent developers, and there are plenty of priorities for the 2015 Tigers.
Here are five things the team should try to accomplish this spring.
1. Find some adequate receivers
Tigers fans are going to hear about this one ad nauseam until the season starts.
Missouri uses three- or four-receiver sets often. In the last two years, the team has lost Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Darius White, Levi Copelin and Lawrence Lee.
The team is as close to starting from scratch as possible this spring. Six scholarship players remain on the team right now, with at least four and possibly five more arriving as true freshmen reinforcements this summer. But only three will enter the season having played in a college game: Nate Brown, Wesley Leftwich and J’Mon Moore.
It’s nice that help is on the way, but the six players in spring practice are the ones likely to contribute in a meaningful way this season. The No. 1 priority of the spring has to be finding a few who can catch Maty Mauk’s passes.
2. Determine how much tinkering to do on defense
New coordinator Barry Odom clearly wants to tinker with a 3-4 scheme at Missouri. The question is how much, and how soon.
The defensive line sets up well for a 3-4 alignment. The team boasts plenty of lighter linebackers who can fly around the field in coverage or rush the passer at least from a physical standpoint, though there’s a talent drop-off at the position after Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer.
Most every defense deploys multiple packages and schemes. Mizzou needs figure out what’s worth an experiment and what isn’t so the team doesn’t waste too much time fixing something that isn’t broken between now and the fall.
3. Continue to develop Maty Mauk
On the whole, Mauk’s up-and-down season didn’t meet expectations in 2014, as his development curve flattened during his sophomore season. With the near-crisis at receiver, Mizzou needs Mauk to be an above-average quarterback in the SEC this fall.
He’s fairly experienced, but still needs to develop basic decision-making skills and the ability to read defenses. The Tigers don’t want to curtail Mauk’s natural instincts too much, as he plays best when he’s improvising and throwing downfield with no conscience. But he needs to be more comfortable in the pocket, learn to pick his spots to take risks and see the field better.
If the team can’t help him develop that during these 15 spring practices, Mizzou will endure another season of average play in the passing game.
4. Improve the secondary
The last two seasons, the team’s defensive backs have been able to rely on the fact that players like Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Shane Ray were Tasmanian devils as pass rushers. Without major unforeseen progress at defensive end this spring, the team won’t be as good at the position in 2015.
That means the secondary, which lost safety Braylon Webb, must be on top of its game.
The team brings back virtually everyone aside from Webb. Junior college transfer Kenya Dennis got better — and caught the attention of the coaches — throughout last season. He’s got a chance to be a star in the SEC this fall, assuming he continues his progression (it would help if he got faster this spring). Aarion Penton was in the doghouse for parts of last season, but still is a promising starting cornerback who also could use a strong spring.
Young players like Logan Cheadle look promising, but need more practice reps, and now is the perfect time for it.
5. Settle the left tackle position
Gary Pinkel’s team will benefit from a good amount of returning experience at offensive line. Center Evan Boehm and right guard Connor McGovern should make a power tandem that anchors the line. But left tackle is the biggest question mark.
Missouri’s offensive linemen are versatile, and there are several returnees who could fill the position. But Mizzou signed two junior college players in Malik Cuellar and Tyler Howell. The former will participate in spring practice and should get every opportunity to win the job, but it could go a lot of ways.
The offensive line went through an inconsistent season in ’14 in part due to Anthony Gatti’s knee injury, but A.J. Ricker needs to prove himself as a young position coach and make sure the unit is stable entering the fall.