The start of spring practice for the defending SEC East champion Missouri Tigers brings a lot of optimism. Head coach Gary Pinkel is coming off a 12-2 campaign and was able to retain all of his assistant by being able to provide them a pay raise. The head coach himself also sees a nice bump in salary.
However, there are a lot of questions that will need to be answered with the departure of key players from the Cotton Bowl championship squad. The first answer will come Tuesday afternoon, when the 2014 Tigers open up with the first of 14 practices.
Here’s a quick look at how the roster is shaping up.
James Franklin is gone and it appears that Maty Mauk will have the inside track to the starting job. He was 3-1 as a starter with wins over Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. His only loss was that USC game. If he could get credit for a save, as in baseball, he’d get one for finishing up the Georgia road win.
Corbin Berstresser had his chance two seasons ago and wasted it by admitting he was not as prepared as he should have been at times when he stepped in for Franklin during that miserable, 5-7 season. I’ll also be interested to check out the development of youngsters Eddie Printz and Trent Hosick. Also, Marvin Zanders is a true freshman. When he runs, he looks much like Franklin.
It’s amazing what a healthy line can do for a team. The Tigers will return Evan Boehm at center, the anchor for that line, as well as Mitch Morse and Connor McGovern. Mizzou still has additional experience as they were able to rotate in some younger guys last season. For example, St. Louis senior Anthony Gatti started two games last season and Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and Brad McNulty saw playing time last year. McNulty also saw significant playing time in 2012.
Junior Henry Josey left early for the NFL draft, but the Tigers were more than just Josey. They were a team that ran for over 3,300 yards. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bad-mouthing Josey, I’m just saying there is some strong potential here.
Senior Marcus Murphy and junior Russell Hansbrough combined for almost 1,300 yards together with an average of over six yards per carry. Waiting to try to take that third spot on the depth chart is sophomore Morgan Steward.
This position took a big hit. With many teams focusing on Dorial Green-Beckham it allowed L’Damian Washington to have a breakout year. With the loss of Marcus Lucas, all eyes will be on DGB. Is this the Springfield product’s final season at Mizzou? Who is ready to step up to help out Mauk? Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt appear to be next in line. Last year, the two only combined for two touchdowns. The Tigers will also have the services of Darius White, the Texas transfer and Levi Copelin. Some players have seen action, but can they step up to the next level to take pressure off of Green-Beckham?
In addition to having a healthy O-line, the other reason the Tigers had success running the ball was due to the work of their tight ends. Gone are the days of Rucker, Coffman and Egnew. Now the focus is run blocking, after Eric Waters and Sean Culkin combined for just nine catches.
Waters is gone, but the junior Culkin brings experience with junior Clayton Echard and redshirt freshman Jason Reese leading the way in that battle for the number two spot on the depth chart.
Mizzou is like a factory for the NFL, churning out top pro players and prospects year after year. Marcus Golden and Shane Ray were definitely overlooked with the play of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, but not being noticed is a good sign for a backup. It showed me there was very little drop off when they were on the field. Golden led the line with 55 tackles, including 13 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and 8 QB pressures. Ray was second on the team with 11 QB pressures. Outside presence will not be an issue for Mizzou this season. They also have experience in the middle with Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent, plus we got to see a pair of sophomores in Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta. Mizzou is stacked again on the D-line.
Andrew Wilson made a good transition from OLB to calling the defensive plays. This season the Tigers will be young with Kentrell Brothers being the only returning starter at linebacker. Senior Darvin Ruise will see more playing time, but the team has sophomore’s Michael Scherer fighting for an outside job and Donavin Newsom vying for increased playing time. This will take all of spring and fall camp to shake out these three positions.
If there was a time to lose starters on the outside, it is this season with so many new quarterbacks coming into the SEC this season. E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder are gone, leaving the CB position wide open. What helps the transition is that sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson did see some considerable playing time. Penton started two games in place of Gaines in 2013 when Gaines hurt his leg. He even came up with an interception. We won’t see much of Ernest Payton this spring, who was slowed by leg injuries and will be nursed along this April. Watch out for his name this August.
The Tigers return Braylon Webb who really emerged as a surprise in the Mizzou secondary. He has three interceptions and finished second on the team with 89 tackles. Ian Simon will fight for the other starting safety position, but again the Tigers appear to be a little light in the secondary. Transfer Duron Singleton, who was injured much of the season could be a dark horse to emerge this spring.
The starters remain the same with PK Andrew Baggett, senior and P Christian Brinser. Baggett has a canon for a leg, but only hit 18 of 25 on FG attempts and missed three extra points (Remember the NFL is considering doing away with PATs because they are gimmes?).
Brinser deserves more credit. As a first year punter, he averaged 41.0 yards per punt, and had 26 sit inside the opponents’ 20-yardline.
Camp gets started today and wraps up with the annual,Black & Gold Game, to be played April 19th at 1 p.m. at Faurot Field.