University of Missouri

Five things to watch ahead of Mizzou’s Black & Gold Spring Game

Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock.
Missouri Tigers quarterback Drew Lock.

Missouri stunned the Southeastern Conference and national football pundits by winning back-to-back SEC East division titles in 2013 and 2014.

After limping from the Big 12 into the SEC with an injury-marred 5-7 debut, those two division title-winning seasons seemed to put “the nation’s best football conference” on notice only to watch the Tigers crash back to earth.

Rejuvenated Florida and Tennessee programs have returned to the top of the East, while Mizzou endured a brief players’ boycott, the retirement of the coach with the most wins in program history (Gary Pinkel), and a 3-13 conference record the last two seasons.

After a 4-8 campaign in 2016, returning to a bowl game is a top priority entering coach Barry Odom’s second season.

With the Black & Gold Spring Game set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium on the SEC Network, here are five things to watch as a way-to-early barometer for Mizzou’s chances to rebound in 2017:

1. Does a record-setting offense have more bite?

During offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s first season, Mizzou made a massive improvement from 2015’s lethargy — increasing its scoring average 231 percent to 31.4 points per game, its efficiency 145 percent to 6.34 yards per play, and setting the program records for total offense with 500.5 yards per game.

Those raw numbers obscured uneven performances — in particular, massive letdowns against LSU, Florida and Kentucky — demonstrating the need for continued growth.

It starts with junior quarterback Drew Lock, a Lee’s Summit wunderkind who enjoyed a confidence-building 2016, but still showed some inexperience during SEC play, completing only 53.3 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in eight games.

If Lock finds another level, Mizzou’s offense could become elite.

2. What becomes of D-Line Zou?

Missouri established a nationwide identity for churning out NFL defensive linemen under Craig Kuligowski, who now coaches the defensive line at Miami (Fla.).

With most of his protégés having moved on and the Tigers are on their fourth defensive-line coach since 2015 — Kuligowski, Chris Wilson, Jackie Shipp and, now, Brick Haley — it begs the question if D-Line Zou is dead.

Scheme changes neutered the front four’s famously aggressive and disruptive style before Odom’s midseason about-face last season, but MU must rebuild without Lincoln Prep graduate Charles Harris, who left early for the NFL.

Senior defensive end Marcell Frazier, who will miss the spring game after suffering a broken forearm, finished last season with a flourish, and junior defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. has a D-Line Zou-worthy pedigree, but he’s coming off a ACL surgery.

3. Who starts at cornerback?

Undersized three-year starter Aarion Penton was an All-SEC performer by the end of his career and probably remains underappreciated for his sure-tackling and tenacity in defending passes.

There’s perhaps no bigger roster hole for the Tigers to fill now that he and the Tigers’ other starting cornerback last season, John Gibson, have moved on.

Sophomores DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes started the spring atop the depth chart and senior Logan Cheadle, who is the most experienced returning cornerback, has impressed during the last six weeks.

But it remains to be seen if that trio can match the production and competitiveness of Penton and Gibson.

4. Tapping into wide receiver talent

Missouri has no shortage of pass-catching talent.

Senior J’Mon Moore won All-SEC honors with 62 catches for 1,012 yards and eight touchdowns last season.

Sophomores Dimetrios Mason and Johnathon Johnson combined for another 71 catches for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns.

Junior Nate Brown, who redshirted last season after ankle surgery, also returns to a stable that includes potential playmakers in Emanuel Hall, Ray Wingo and Justin Smith among others.

The group lacked consistency and was plagued by dropped passes last season, but there’s hope a more mature receiving corps can help Mizzou maximize its potential.

5. Can Missouri make an extra point?

As a freshman last fall, Tucker McCann struggled.

Signed to a scholarship after a standout career at O’Fallon (Ill.) High, he was supposed to solidify the position after Andrew Baggett’s graduation.

Instead, McCann missed four extra points and connected on only 6 of 12 field goals, creating a revolving door at kicker and stirring frustration among fans.

Odom preached patience and never gave up on McCann — whose strong leg was evident by his 65.6 touchback percentage, which ranked No. 15 in the Football Bowl Subdivision — but he needs to emerge a weapon and not a question mark in 2017.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer