When asked about Missouri’s quarterback situation, offensive coordinator Josh Henson turned to a boxing analogy.
“Every year, there’s competition,” Henson said, “but it’s just like boxing. To beat the champ, you’ve got to go beat him. You can’t tie with him. He’s going to get the benefit of the doubt. The champ always gets that. It’s the same when you’re trying to unseat a starter. You’ve got to go beat the starter out and play significantly better than he does to win that job.”
Maty Mauk, who is entering his junior season, fell flat at times during his first full season as the Tigers’ starting quarterback last season.
The worst of it came during a three-game stretch to open Southeastern Conference play when Mauk’s quarterback rating never topped 68.
Against South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, Mauk’s combined numbers were abysmal. He completed only 27 of 73 passes — less than 37 percent — for a meager 249 yards with no touchdowns and five interceptions.
Amazingly, Missouri won two of those three games, but the offense, led by Mauk, wasn’t carrying its weight.
“One thing that’s neat about Maty, people talk about a sophomore slump and maybe he had it through a few games last year,” Henson said. “There was three games there where we didn’t play well as an offense and Maty wasn’t playing really well. … But Maty knew he had to get better and I think he improved in that process. He grew through some adversity.”
Mauk didn’t pout and closed the season strong with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions in the final seven games as Missouri marched to a second straight SEC East division title and blasted Minnesota in Citrus Bowl.
“He heard people saying that he’s not any good and those kind of things, but the I enjoyed about Maty last year is that he never flinched in that situation,” Henson said. “He just kept working, he kept believing and things got better.
“That’s a great lesson for you to learn as a quarterback. You try to cut out the chatter and all the things that don’t matter. You stay focused on the process and, eventually if you do that, the process will turn you back into performing at the level you want to perform at.”
Despite playing the final half of the season with an injured throwing shoulder, Mauk improved to 14-4 as a starter with the Tigers, including a 3-1 record as a redshirt freshman when he stepped in for an injured James Franklin.
“Maty had a good spring,” Henson said. “I like where he’s at coming out of that. The good news is there, I think we’ve got a couple guys there behind him playing really well. Obviously, you add another talented freshman, Drew Lock, into that mix. We’ve got some talent there and we’ve got some depth there. We’re probably as deep as we’ve been there, in my opinion, since I’ve been at Mizzou.”
That makes him the Wladimir Klitschko of Missouri’s quarterback group. It’s going to take a lot to snatch the title from Mauk.
Mauk’s pass efficiency rating of 120.8 only ranked 75th in the nation among 109 qualifying quarterbacks, but he was ahead of some notable players, including Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg.
Hackenberg is 11th on ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper’s big board and projected by many as a possible No. 1 overall pick in 2016.
During crunch time, Mauk’s numbers improved massively. He ranked No. 20 in the country in fourth-quarter pass efficiency, according to cfbstats.com, with a 166.3 rating.
He threw nine touchdowns — second most in the nation — with no interceptions in the fourth quarter and his nine passes of 25-plus yards were seventh-most in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Mauk’s 25 touchdowns last season were more than any MU quarterback not named Chase Daniel in program history. He was tied with Florida State’s Jameis Winston and had more passing touchdowns than Michigan State’s Connor Cook and UCLA’s Brett Hundley.
There’s undoubtedly room to improve.
Ideally, Mauk needs to bump up a 53.4 percent completion rate by 10 points, but there’s little doubt that the Tigers are counting on Mauk to lead the charge once again.