Missouri football opens training camp for the 2017 season Tuesday in Columbia.
The Tigers haven’t been to a bowl game since the 2014 Citrus Bowl — enduring a rocky two-year stretch that included the eight-game suspension of former starting quarterback Maty Mauk, a brief player boycott that drew attracted national headlines and contributed to declining enrollment, the retirement of Gary Pinkel amid a cancer diagnosis and a parade of athletic directors (interim and otherwise).
Mizzou has limped to a 9-15 record, including a 3-13 record in SEC play, during the last two seasons combined, but Barry Odom’s debut campaign provided a glimmer of hope in November.
The Tigers sandwiched home wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas around a record-setting offensive outburst at Tennessee in building much-needed momentum for the offseason.
Now, junior quarterback Drew Lock hopes to lead Mizzou’s offense, which set a program record for yards per game last season, to even greater heights, while the defense hopes to turn things around and return to national respectability.
At the very least, that means bowl eligibility, but it could mean even more excitement if everything falls into place — as the Tigers showed in 2013 and 2014.
Here are five story lines to watch as Odom’s second Mizzou camp gets underway:
1. Does the defensive line have the firepower to replace Charles Harris and be a dominant force again?
Harris, a first-round pick by the Dolphins, led Missouri in sacks (nine) and tackles for a loss (12) last season. Some view his departure for the NFL as the end of the road for D-Line Zou, but senior defensive end Marcell Frazier is eager to prove that’s not the case.
He was second on the Tigers with 7 1/2 sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for a loss last season, including monster games — 6 1/2 sacks and 7 1/2 tackles for a loss against Vandy, the Vols and the Hogs — during a pivotal three-game stretch to end the season.
If Frazier (6-5, 265), who has recovered from a broken forearm suffered during spring practice, can pick up where he left off, Mizzou will have another elite defensive-line prospect to offer in the 2018 NFL Draft and D-Line Zou shouldn’t miss a beat.
Of course, he can’t do it alone — and Odom’s staff clearly understood that, given the emphasis on bolstering depth along the front four.
Former Texas defensive tackle Jordan Elliott announced plans to become a Tiger, following new defensive line coach Brick Haley from Austin, Texas. He won’t be eligible for 2017, but the other offseason additions ought to help Mizzou significantly in the trenches.
Early enrollee Rashad Brandon (6-3, 305), a junior three-star defensive tackle from ASA College in Brooklyn,, impressed during spring practice. If his disruptiveness is indicative of the quality of incoming players, the Tigers are in great shape.
Privately, members of Mizzou’s staff have been thrilled with the incoming class, which has “far exceeded expectations already.” Chief among those players turning heads are freshman defensive tackles Akial Byers (6-4, 260) and Kobie Whiteside (6-1, 304), along with freshman defensive end Chris Turner (6-4, 225).
The Tigers also have high hopes for junior-college transfers Malik Young (6-3, 280), Nate Anderson (6-4, 250) and Walter Palmore (6-4, 300), along with incoming freshman Caleb Sampson (6-4, 285).
And that’s just the new guys. Seniors A.J. Logan (6-2, 325) and Jordan Harold (6-2, 265) will assume even bigger leadership roles with the defensive line, while big things are expected from Terry Beckner Jr. (6-4, 290) and Markell Utsey (6-4, 310) after their seasons ended prematurely last year because of torn ACLs.
Perhaps there are some folks excited to see the development of redshirt freshman Tre Williams or raw-but-gifted redshirt sophomore Franklin Agbasimere. It’s too early to say any are bona fide stars, but there are enough bodies there it’s safe to assume someone will emerge as a star.
2. How much of a concern is the secondary?
Losing cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson, who have been stalwarts on the boundary the last three seasons for Mizzou, is a significant blow. The Tigers didn’t lose any safety personnel, but the back-end spots were a revolving door among seniors Anthony Sherrils (6-0, 205) and Thomas Wilson (5-10, 200), junior Cam Hilton (6-0, 190) and sophomore Ronnell Perkins (6-0, 205) last season.
It will be interesting to see who, if anyone, locks down a starting secondary spot during training camp, because all those jobs remain up for grabs — really up for grabs, not in the “every job is up for grabs at every practice” coach-speak kind of way.
Entering camp, sophomores DeMarkus Acy (6-2, 195) and Christian Holmes (6-1, 195) are listed atop the depth chart, with seniors Logan Cheadle (5-10, 180) and Anthony Hines (6-1, 195) penciled in as the backups. Acy and Holmes had some bright moments as freshmen, while Cheadle was limited for a chunk of the season because of a sprained ankle.
Reports from spring practice were encouraging on all three players, but that’s a lot different than being a proven, NFL-caliber commodity and every-game difference-maker, like Penton had proven to be during his collegiate career.
Don’t sleep on speedy freshman Adam Sparks (6-0, 163) either. He’s turned heads this summer and could force his way into the rotation, while fellow freshman Terry Petry (6-1, 160) also brings speed to burn, and redshirt freshman Jerod Alton (5-10, 180) hopes to work his way into the mix.
Meanwhile, Sherrils has the inside track to start at strong safety and Perkins is atop the depth chart at free safety, but there are plenty of young bucks who arrived this summer — Tyree Gillespie (6-0, 202), Jordan Ulmer (6-2, 190) and Joshuah Bledsoe (6-0, 190) — eager to earn some playing time.
Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett (6-1, 210) is listed as a starter at outside linebacker, the jack-of-all-trades position vacated by Donavin Newsom’s graduation, but he has plenty of experience at safety and could easily soak up reps there, if needed.
3. Was the offensive line’s success sustainable or a mirage?
Tackles Tyler Howell (6-8, 330), a senior from Bonner Springs, and Paul Adams (6-6, 315), a junior who was among the nation’s top-graded pass-blockers last season, formed the bookends for arguably Mizzou’s most-surprisingly successful unit last season.
Both started every game along with junior left guard Kevin Pendleton (6-4, 335), who helped form the backbone of an offensive line that paved the way for a 1,000-yard rusher (Damarea Crockett) and 3,000-yard passer (Lock).
A handful of other players — senior Alec Abeln (6-3, 305), sophomore Jonah Dubinski (6-2, 295), senior Adam Ploudre (6-4, 320) and junior Samson Bailey (6-4, 295) — return with playing experience.
Meanwhile, sophomores Tre’Vour Simms (6-5, 355) and Yasir Durant, a junior-college transfer, seem poised to push for a starting job. Perhaps redshirt freshman Trystan Castillo (6-4, 320) is also ready for a rapid rise up the depth chart.
Mizzou also is excited about its incoming crop of offensive linemen —Hyrin Morrison-White (6-6, 300), Case Cook (6-5, 290), Pompey Coleman (6-5, 300) and Larry Borom (6-6, 338) — who provide vastly improved depth for practice and the scout team, if nothing else, compared to last season.
The Tigers were historically good, allowing only 36 tackles for a loss last season and permitting only 14 sacks (third-best among Power Five teams behind Pittsburgh and USC). Duplicating that won’t be easy, but the personnel certainly seems to be in place for similar success.
4. What’s reasonable to expect from the Tigers’ rushing attack?
There seems to be some concern about whether sophomore running back Crockett can replicate a breakout debut season, which included 153 carries for a freshman record 1,062 yards with 10 touchdowns.
Quite frankly, I don’t get it. Crockett (5-11, 225) was suspended for the Arkansas game after a citation for alleged marijuana possession and didn’t receive more than 12 carries in any of Missouri’s first five games. In effect, it’s as if he played eight games last season.
Odom hinted this summer that Crockett would be more of a workhorse in 2017, so he should see a lot more carries, which could translate to something like 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns, if he stays healthy.
Lock won’t ever be confused with Michael Vick in his prime, but he could factor into the running game more. Senior Ish Witter (5-10, 195) remains a valuable player because of his football IQ with proven production (750 yards, six touchdowns last season). With a year in the program under his belt, Nate Strong (6-0, 210) might also see an increased role, while freshmen Isaiah Miller (5-11, 195) and Larry Rountree III (5-10, 183) add depth.
Miller enrolled early, so he was able to learn the system — and make a strong initial impression — during spring practice. Redshirt freshman walk-on Dawson Downing (6-0, 225), who was the star of the spring game, made a similarly strong impression during the spring.
5. How else can the offense improve?
Lock (6-4, 225) can become more consistent and develop more touch, especially on short-to-intermediate routes. He’s spent a lot of time this offseason dissecting the deep throws that could have turned into touchdowns, but there will be more chances for down-the-field shots if he also converts a few more chain-moving passes.
It also would help if the Tigers did a better job catching passes. Senior J’Mon Moore (6-3, 205), who had 62 receptions for 1,012 yards with eight touchdowns, and sophomore Dimetrios Mason (6-0, 185), who totaled 47 catches for 587 yards with three touchdowns, were the most-productive receivers last season. Both also were the most prone to flubbing the occasional catch, which contributed to the offense’s difficulty sustaining drives at critical times.
There’s no shortage of targets for Mizzou, which set a school record by averaging 500.5 total yards last season. The return of junior Nate Brown (6-3, 210), who missed last season because of an ankle injury, along with game-breaking sophomore Johnathon Johnson (5-10, 185) make for a dangerous top-line group.
Senior Dominic Collins (6-2, 180), juniors Ray Wingo (5-11, 175) and Emanuel Hall (6-3, 200), sophomores Justin Smith (6-7, 210) and Richaud Floyd (5-11, 185) and a pair of talented, speedy freshmen — Lee’s Summit North’s Da’Ron Davis (6-2, 190) and O’shae Clark (5-8, 160) — provide ample depth.
But perhaps the sneakiest player primed for a monster season is junior Kendall Blanton (6-6, 265), who had 16 catches for 161 yards with three touchdowns last season and proved to be an adept (at times devastating) blocker from the halfback spot. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel should have enjoyed developing some plays with Blanton and his uncommon combination of size and athleticism in mind during the offseason.
Tight end could be a growth area for the offense overall with senior Jason Reese eager to make the most of his final season and a trio of freshmen — Albert Okwuegbunam, Brendan Scales and Logan Christopherson — eager to make an early splash.
Bonus: So, about the kicking game …
Tucker McCann remains the odds-on favorite to handle kicking duties in 2017. There’s no way to sugarcoat his struggles last season.
McCann has to make more than 50 percent of his field-goal tries (6 of 12) and 90 percent of his extra points (39 of 43), but those blunders obscured the fact that he finished 15th in the Football Bowl Subdivision with a 65.6 touchback percentage as a freshman.
There’s no doubt McCann has a booming leg, so if his confidence recovered and he settles in as a sophomore, perhaps kicking can morph into a weapon for MU.
If not, we’ll see senior walk-on Nick Bartolotta and junior walk-on Andrew Carr and fans will pull out a few more tufts of hair.