Missouri’s Pro Day is history and spring break is in the books, so the Tigers’ attention now turns to preparation for the 2015 season without distraction.
Saturday marks the first of three scrimmages, including the annual Black & Gold Game at 4 p.m. April 18 at Memorial Stadium.
It’s the first chance to see new defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s fingerprint on the Missouri defense and how much cohesion has developed with the offensive line and passing game during the winter months.
There will be a new wave of reinforcements in June when a few junior-college transfers and most of the incoming freshman class arrives.
Several players from that group — including East St. Louis defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., Butler (Kan.) Community College offensive tackle Tyler Howell and Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College running back Chase Abbington — should crack the fall depth chart.
It’s likely a wide receiver or two also will make the depth chart given the lack of scholarship options at the position this spring, but summer workouts and the fall camp will sort that out.
In any case, the bulk of playing time next season will come from players in the Tigers’ spring camp.
There is no shortage of questions Missouri’s staff must address as the quest begins for a third consecutive SEC East division title, a feat that seemed nearly unthinkable in 2012.
1. What is the plan at wide receiver?
Move ’em over, move ’em up.
It worked out relatively well last season with Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White taking the baton from L’Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham.
Of course, the returning players for 2015 have significantly less experience.
Senior Wesley Leftwich, the only senior among the Tigers’ receiver corps, is penciled in at the “Z” receiver with sophomore J’Mon Moore outside at the “X” receiver. Sophomore Nate Brown provides an intriguing slot option as the “H” receiver.
Missouri doesn’t have a receiver taller than 6-3 on the spring roster, but Brown provides great size in the slot at 6-3, 205.
He’ll be a matchup nightmare for any linebacker if Maty Mauk can deliver the ball accurately and on time.
Brown was the centerpiece of Missouri’s 2014 recruiting class and Mauk (along with coaches and other receivers) raves about his ability.
With Brown dinged up, walk-on junior Eric Laurent has been working with the starters. At 215 pounds, he’s the heaviest receiver in camp and showed great hands in spring camp last year.
Three redshirt freshmen — DeSean Blair, Thomas Richard and Keyon Dilosa — also might be able to make a move before up the depth chart before the Sept. 5 opener against Southeast Missouri.
As for the incoming freshmen, Franklin (Tenn.) wide receiver Emanuel Hall (6-3, 196) is the most frequent name thrown out as having a college-ready body and aptitude, but University City (Mo.) wide receiver Ronnell Perkins is a possibility to make the depth chart if he stays on the offensive side.
West Laurens (Ga.) wide receiver Justin Smith, a raw 6-foot-7 prospect, is intriguing, especially for the possibilities he presents as a red-zone target, but it’s far too early to project any of the newcomers as game-day roster locks.
2. Can Kuligowski work his magic again?
Shane Ray is gone.
Markus Golden is gone.
Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent are gone inside.
That’s an awful lot of talent and experience to lose along the defensive line, which has been a position of tremendous strength for years under defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski’s tutelage.
Fortunately, Kuligowski isn’t starting over completely.
Defensive tackle Harold Brantley assumes the mantle as the alpha dog on the Tigers’ line. He recorded 54 tackles, including 22 solo stops, last season, trailing only Ray and Golden.
Brantley also had seven tackles for a loss with five sacks and seven quarterback hurries. He’ll be a force (unless Missouri moves him to running back).
If Beckner Jr. can make an impact inside paired with junior Josh Augusta, a 6-4 and 345 mountainous space-eater, Brantley could even bounce outside some.
With Charles Harris, a sophomore defensive end, expected to emerge as the next great Tigers pass rusher and sophomore Marcus Loud also returning, it’s not as it Missouri is in dire straits.
Still, the Tigers’ dominance up front isn’t exactly the slam dunk it’s been the last two seasons either.
3. Will the offensive line improve?
Inconsistency plagued Missouri’s offensive line at times, but that wasn’t completely unexpected for myriad reasons.
First and foremost, the Tigers had a late coaching change and didn’t benefit from a full spring and summer working with A.J. Ricker.
The reshuffling necessary with Justin Britt’s graduation was again thrown into flux with left guard Anthony Gatti’s season-ending knee injury.
Plugging that hole and settling on a right tackle also proved problematic, but with the additions of junior college transfers Malik Cuellar and Howell, a Bonner Springs graduate, there are more options for 2015.
Senior center Evan Boehm and senior right guard Connor McGovern provide a fantastic foundation for what should be an experienced and more consistent line.
4. Will Maty Mauk emerge as one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks?
Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott returns and arguably is the best incumbent quarterback in the SEC, but Mauk actually has started one more game (22) than Prescott (21).
Arkansas’ Brandon Allen has started 25 games, but that’s it as far as multi-year experience under center among returning SEC quarterbacks.
There are other quarterbacks with some degree of experience — Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, Kentucky’s Patrick Towles, Texas A&M’s Kyle Allen (or Kenny Hill), Vanderbilt’s Johnny McCrary — but Mauk should be among the conference’s elite.
If he proves to be, Missouri has a great chance to return to the Georgia Dome, especially considering the quarterbacks situations at Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.
Mauk needs to improve his accuracy and footwork. He also needs to be protected better, but he’s certainly got the requisite moxie to be a star.
Last season, Mauk only completed 53.4 percent of his passes. That needs to be above 60 percent and he needs to bring down his interception total (13).
But Mauk’s got a big arm and can hit some big plays if his receivers come through.
Only Chase Daniel has ever thrown more than Mauk’s 25 touchdowns in a season at MU, so there’s ample reason for optimism.
5. Who handles the return duties with Marcus Murphy’s graduation?
During his Missouri career, Marcus Murphy etched his name all over the program’s record book.
He is one of two players in program history with more than 5,000 all-purpose yards. Murphy’s 5,112 career all-purpose yards trail only new Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (5,609).
Murphy was a first-team All-SEC performer as an all-purpose player and return specialist last season. He finished with 924 rushing yards and 212 receiving yards, but it’s his skill as a return specialist the Tigers are going to miss most.
He owns the Missouri career record with four punt-return touchdowns and is tied for first with three career kickoff returns scores.
Junior cornerbacks John Gibson gets the first crack at replacing Murphy on kickoffs and sophomore Anthony Sherrils, who ran a 4.29 40-yard dash, is atop the depth chart at punt returner.
Moore and redshirt freshman Finis Stribling IV also have return skills as does Melrose (Tenn.) wide receiver Johnathon Johnson, a 5-8 and 174-pounder burner who signed in February and shows some Murphy-esque flashes on film.