Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
For a team that has won the Southeastern Conference’s East Division the past two seasons, the Missouri Tigers sure have some important questions that need answering.
That’s no different than most teams on college football’s opening weekend — which the No. 24 Tigers begin today at home against Southeast Missouri State (3 p.m., SEC Network Plus).
And sure enough, one of the biggest question marks facing the 15th iteration of Gary Pinkel’s Tigers was up in the air at this time last year, as well. Missouri’s receivers, considered inexperienced last season, are practically neonatal this go-round.
Tiger receivers boast just five career starts and 10 total catches, and the lone senior and owner of four of those starts, Wesley Leftwich, will not play against the Redhawks today because of a knee injury.
On the other side of the ball, however, the biggest question mark is a position group that had been a resounding exclamation point in years past: the defensive line.
The Missouri D-line produced two first-team All-Americans and four NFL draft picks in the past two seasons alone. This year, the Tigers’ starting four has one career start between them.
Star defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden now don NFL jerseys, defensive tackle Matt Hoch graduated, and Harold Brantley — expected to be a force on the line in his junior season — was lost for the year because of injuries sustained in a car accident. Another key replacement, Marcus Loud, was kicked off the team in May for a violation of team rules.
Luckily for the Tigers, most other positions are sure things — at least as sure as things can be in early September.
Though he struggled in conference play in his sophomore campaign, starting quarterback Maty Mauk has the third-most starts of any SEC quarterback. Behind him is tailback Russell Hansbrough, whose 1,084 rushing yards last season are third-most among SEC running backs expected to play this year. The Tigers’ offensive line returns a wealth of playing time, highlighted by seniors Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern. On defense, the back seven is about as experienced and athletic as Pinkel has had at Missouri.
In all, it boils down to one question: Can Missouri defend its SEC East crown yet again? That question will not be answered today against SEMO, and really, the scoreboard is not likely to clear up any crystal balls. The Tigers have never lost a game against a Football Championship Subdivision school, and under Pinkel the Tigers have won those 14 contests by a combined score of 543-93.
But Missouri’s first competition this fall against a team not named Missouri will start to shine a light on just what can be expected from the 2015 Tigers.
Here’s a group-by-group breakdown headed into Missouri’s season opener:
Pinkel does not want to use his receiving corps’ youth as an excuse.
“We expect them to go out and play,” he said. “We also know sometimes there’s growing pains, sometimes there’s not. There’s a lot of competition there, so there are a lot of players competing. We’ll play quite a few players.”
Today, wideouts J’Mon Moore and Keyon Dilosa will make their first career starts, and Nate Brown, who started in Missouri’s Citrus Bowl win, will start at slot receiver. Sophomores Moore and Brown played some last year, reeling in a combined seven catches, but redshirt freshman Dilosa is largely an unknown, taking the spot that likely would have been held by Leftwich. Backups Emanuel Hall, Thomas Richard and DeSean Blair figure to see playing time as well.
“They’re a talented group,” Pinkel said. “There’s no question about that. But ultimately you’ve got to go perform. We’ve got to be positive, positive, positive with them and make sure that they’re grinding and working hard and doing all the right things to play their best. The biggest thing with young players is they think they know how to prepare, but they don’t really know how to prepare at this level and this arena that we’re in.”
Mauk said he’s seen signs of maturation among the young receivers.
“It’s a day-and-night difference,” the junior quarterback said. “Everything we did all summer, all camp, these guys have just grown and matured so much. You look at J’Mon Moore, a guy that last year at this time, you would have never known what he was doing, probably out there running his mouth or doing something he shouldn’t have been doing. And now he’s kind of taken the younger guys under (his wing). … (Nate Brown) is starting to step up as a leader, too. He’s not a guy that’s just going out there, getting his reps and going to the back. He’s been a little bit more vocal, and that’s what you need.”
While Hansbrough should be a force at tailback this season, his backups still have plenty to prove following the departure of Marcus Murphy. Sophomore Ish Witter ran for 101 yards and a touchdown last season, and junior Morgan Steward is still hoping to regain his top form after a lingering hip injury.
The offensive line has five seniors at its disposal, but two starters are underclassmen who will be making their debuts today. Sophomore right tackle Nate Crawford earned the starting job by the time fall camp started and has impressed in his return from back surgery. Starting left guard Alec Abeln, however, was a late mover in camp. The sophomore spent the majority of August as Boehm’s backup at center, but impressed in time at left guard and stuck his ground.
Mauk hopes to show improvement in his ability to step up in the pocket and throw — a departure from the itchy trigger finger he displayed last season when abandoning the pocket.
Should the Tigers build a big enough lead, there is a decent chance Missouri fans could get a look at freshman quarterback Drew Lock. Lock impressed in scrimmage play and earned a spot as a backup, meaning he will almost certainly give up his redshirt. Pinkel has employed backup quarterbacks on select drives in the past, and with the hype Lock has generated thus far, it’s hard to imagine this would be any different.
Barry Odom makes his debut as Missouri’s defensive coordinator today, and one of the biggest changes he could bring to the table is the use of a 3-4 defense. With the Tigers’ lack of experience on the defensive line and key veterans at linebacker — Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer are the league’s leading returning tacklers — that arrangement may suit Missouri well.
Charles Harris steps into some big shoes as the Tigers’ biggest pass-rushing threat. He has emerged as a leader for the Tigers.
“I don’t even think I could keep up with Charles with how much he does and how hard he works,” Boehm said. “The kid sets his mind to something and he goes after it hard. … A lot of people are knocking down the D-line right now, but I think they’re going to come out and surprise some people this year.”
Joining Harris on the line are juniors Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta, who are listed at a combined 630 pounds. JUCO transfer Marcell Frazier impressed in camp and earned a starting spot at the other defensive end position.
As with Lock on the offensive end, the defense features a much-hyped freshman who could see playing time today. East St. Louis (Ill.) product Terry Beckner Jr. earned a backup spot at defensive tackle and should figure into the rotation this season.
Missouri’s special teams is perhaps the side of the ball with the most up in the air — no pun intended. The Tigers have to replace All-American return man Murphy and senior punter Christian Brinser, and kicker Andrew Baggett enters the year with a back injury.
Starting safety Anthony Sherrils will replace Murphy as kick returner.
“It’s acceleration, seeing things, finding seams and going. Well, he can get going fast,” Pinkel said of Sherrils. “He can get up to top speed in like 10 yards.”
Starting corner Aarion Penton will take over punt-return duties. Pinkel said the junior has relished the role.
“The good ones, they’ve got ice water in their veins,” Pinkel said. “They like to get up there, they like the challenge of catching the punt.”
Scholarship freshman Corey Fatony beat out junior Dayton Balvanz for the punting job.
“Both of them did well, but from a consistency standpoint, Corey did better,” Pinkel said of Fatony. “And he’s got a very, very strong leg, very explosive.”
Baggett returned from his injury to play in Missouri’s final scrimmage. He is on pace to become Missouri’s all-time leading scorer this season.