Josh Heupel has an immense task ahead of him.
Missouri had one of the worst offenses in the nation last season, finishing last among all Power Five programs in scoring offense and next-to-last in total offense ahead of only Boston College.
It was mostly a disaster and prevented the Tigers from competing for a third consecutive SEC East division title or even making a bowl game.
Now, it’s up to Heupel, who first-year MU head coach Barry Odom hired Dec. 17 as offensive coordinator, to fix it.
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“You just chip away one day at a time,” Heupel said. “You hire staff — good guys that can develop the guys in the room, that are great fundamental teachers of the game. You recruit. You bring in great players — guys that can make a difference for you, that fit not just athletically but mentally the attitude that you’re trying to develop and obtain in this program from the head coach down.”
Heupel was fired from Oklahoma a year ago after four seasons as the co-offensive coordinator and landed at Utah State, where he served as offensive coordinator for one season.
He insists he’s grown from the experience.
“At the end of the day, what did I learn?” Heupel said, rhetorically. “Trust yourself, be who you are schematically and every minute of every day and compete.”
While Heupel wouldn’t commit to an offensive scheme, he has a goal in mind for Missouri’s offense, “Score a lot of points,” he deadpanned to laughter. “How do you do that? There’s a million different ways to do that.”
Heupel did say that he prefers an up-tempo style and, unsurprisingly as a former national-champion quarterback and the 2000 Heisman Trophy runner-up, a pass-heavy scheme. But that comes with a caveat.
“I do think you have to run the ball efficiently to win in any league at any level,” Heupel said. “If you want to chase a championship, you’ve got to be able to run the football.”
That might be especially true in the SEC for Missouri, which only ranked ahead of Kansas, Wake Forest and pass-crazed Washington State in rushing offense last season.
“For us here at Missouri, we have to be able to run the football,” Heupel said. “You’ve got to be physical. You’ve got to be physical up front with your five guys and the edge players you have at tight end, but you better be physical across the board. The wide receivers have to be physical as well. That’s an attitude and mentality that we have to have here.”
Oklahoma ranked fifth nationally in passing offense under Heupel in 2011 and 2012, averaging roughly 340 yards per game.
The Sooners opted for more of a power-rushing attack beginning in 2013 and finished 11th in the country in rushing offense at more than 260 yards per game in 2014, Heupel’s last under Bob Stoops.
At Utah State, Heupel’s offense wasn’t particularly potent, finishing 64th among 128 teams in scoring offense (29.0 ppg) and 93rd in total offense (370.2 ypg).
Of course, that still far outpaced Missouri, which checked in 127th in scoring offense (13.6 ppg) and 125th in total offense (208.9 ypg).
Heupel said he wanted to install an offense that churned out 80 plays per game, but wide-receiver attrition in training camp combined with quarterback issues during the season forced him to adopt more of a ball-control mentality.
He’ll do the same thing at Missouri if the roster isn’t set up for the blitzkrieg style he prefers.
“You better fit your scheme to your personnel,” Heupel said. “If you don’t, if your personnel can’t fit in the scheme, then you’re going to have issues. Year one, when you’re taking this thing over, a big part of the transition for me and our offensive staff is finding out who we have at our skill positions, who we are up front and how we put those guys in position to be successful and win one-on-one match ups at the end of the day.”
Among the first questions Heupel must address is the quarterback situation.
Missouri went 3-1 before Maty Mauk was suspended the final two months of the season for repeated violations of team rules.
Heupel views Mauk, who Odom reinstated last month, as a hard-nosed competitor and a winner.
True freshman Drew Lock from Lee’s Summit guided the Tigers to only two wins in eight starts (against tougher competition in SEC play), but Heupel recruited him while at Oklahoma and said he’s a “great talent” with a gifted right arm.
Both will compete for the starting job.
“I know some of their past, and all the coaches will as well, but that has no bearing on who and what they are moving forward,” Heupel said. “Everybody starts with a clean slate, I don’t care if you started every ball game last year or were running scout-team reps. You’re going to earn it every single day. The guy that has the best offseason is the guy that’s going to start the first day in spring ball. The guy that has the best first day of spring ball is going to be starting day two.”
Heupel said his focus for the immediate future remains recruiting. He’ll begin to piece together Missouri’s scheme for 2016 after national-signing day on Feb. 3.
“(You) recruit every single day,” he said. “It’s the lifeblood of who and what you are as a program, so you’ve got to do that every day.”