Campus Corner

Impact, importance of Mizzou’s WR blocking plus your questions in jumbo Ask Tod finale

Missouri Tigers wide receiver Johnathon Johnson (12) celebrated the first touchdown of the game against the Missouri State Bears on Saturday, Sept. 2, during the first quarter of the season opening college football game at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.
Missouri Tigers wide receiver Johnathon Johnson (12) celebrated the first touchdown of the game against the Missouri State Bears on Saturday, Sept. 2, during the first quarter of the season opening college football game at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Missouri’s dominant offensive performance in a season-opening win against Missouri State was the perimeter/downfield blocking by wide receivers.

Certainly, it was the most fun for the team to watch when studying film of the 72-43 rout.

“We showed a lot of video Sunday night …,” second-year Tigers coach Barry Odom said. “Probably the favorite thing to point out the entire night was the way the wide receivers blocked when they didn’t have the ball.”

It was a point of emphasis throughout the offseason for Mizzou offensive coordinator Josh Heupel.

“A year ago, our kids didn't compete as hard as they have to out there on the perimeter,” he said. “It’s been a challenge from our whole coaching staff ... and those guys answered it. … It was fun to see our guys take pride and do that at a high level for 60 minutes. … If we can keep that going, it’s going to help us as we get the conference play here this week.”

On the first play of the game, junior quarterback Drew Lock fired a quick hitch outside for sophomore wide receiver Johnathon Johnson.

Johnson turned toward the boundary as sophomore wide receiver Dimetrios Mason’s clear-out block erased two Bears defensive backs from the play and created a channel down the sideline.

Sixty-five yards later, Missouri led 6-0 and had scored on the first offensive snap of the season for the first time in the programs’ modern era, which began in 1958.

“Last year, we saw a lot of opportunities that, if we would have gotten one more block, it would have turned into a big play,” junior wide receiver Emanuel Hall said. “This offseason, we really emphasized going down field and making that extra block. On Saturday, across the board, I think we all did a really good job of that and we turned small gains into big ones.”

It doesn’t just benefit the passing game either. That same dedication on run plays makes sophomore running back Damarea Crockett and MU’s stable of ball carriers more dangerous, too.

Crockett’s second touchdown against Missouri State was a bouncing beauty of a TD dash, but it was only possible thanks to blocks downfield, including one by Hall near the goal line, that gave him time and space.

“It’s amazing and 10 times better than last year,” Crockett said. “I feel like that’s the different between a play going 5 yards and a play going 50 yards for the touchdown. It’s just the receivers blocking. From last year’s offense, that’s where we’ve improved the most — by far, easily.”

Now, onto your questions:

I wouldn’t say “blueprint.” That makes it sound like it’s by design.

But yes, obviously that’s where Mizzou finds itself after the season-opener. The offense clearly buoyed the defense in week one and may have to all season. The Tigers will keep making corrections and tweaking personnel or sub-packages on defense, which should get better as the squad matures and gains experience together. Will it ever be a shut-down defense? That seems unlikely, but it doesn’t have to be with that offense.

If MU’s defense simply can be good enough, and fixing the poor tackling probably isn’t an overnight fix, that offense can deliver some wins and make 2017 an exciting campaign for Tigers fans. Of course, if the defense finds a backbone by the Auburn game (Sept. 23) or during the bye week before Mizzou hits the road for the first time (Oct. 7 at Kentucky, Oct. 14 at Georgia), the makings of a really special season could be in place.

A rising tide raises all boats. Jordan Barnett, who was Missouri’s most-athletic player last season, will benefit from the attention Michael Porter Jr. and Jeremiah Tilmon command. So will Kevin Puryear. Jordan Geist may flourish with a well-defined role, because he’s going to get some minutes. The Tigers’ staff loves his grit.

But the most-correct answer is probably Terrence Phillips. He’s a natural distributor and was accustomed to playing on ridiculously talent-filled teams at Oak Hill Academy during his prep career. Phillips can slide back into that role — being a pass-first point guard, who facilitates for the other guys by creating easy buckets and pushing the tempo in transition.

That also comes with the added bonus that Phillips, by necessity, grew as a scorer during the last two seasons. He had to average double figures for Mizzou to have a chance, so he quietly led the team in three-point shooting last season and rounded out his game with that additional scoring punch. It doesn’t go away now. He’s just a more complete point guard, one who I suspect will have the Tigers averaging close to or above 80 points per game this season.

Double that is possible. Unless you’re talking basketball, in which case eight times that is possible*.

* That is not a prediction

Man, I don’t know. It’s only been one game and he may earn more time moving forward. He’s an easy kid to root for — so jovial and polite and positive and introspective — with a great back story, growing up in Canada and moving to Alabama then New Mexico. Eventually, I think Anderson can be an impact player for Missouri.

I’d set the over/under for football at 7 … and wait until after Saturday’s game to actually plunk down any money. Basketball regular season? I’d go 23 1/2 ... and lean toward the over.

Won’t matter, because Missouri’s offense is scoring 112. And speaking of SEC Championship Games …

Learn your history: my arrival in September 2013 ushered in two straight trips to Atlanta. But yeah, you’re right, things kind of tanked from there in a lot of ways. I don’t think I was actually responsible, but I won’t complain if superstitious fans want to link any success this season with my departure. Be grateful for my sacrifice.

If you missed it, I made a ridiculous typo while listening to the SEC Football teleconference this week. After asking South Carolina’s Will Muschamp about the challenge of facing Drew Lock, he gave a nice quote about his NFL prospects, saying he’s got a “Sunday arm,” and raved about Missouri’s wide receivers and tight ends.

Trying to paraphrase for the 140-character limit, I misspelled a word, backspaced a few times to delete and retyped. I may have backspaced one too many times, eliminating a rather critical “p” when noting the Tigers’ “pass-catching talent” and that led to a viral tweet. See below:

Fortunately, we all had fun with it — perhaps nobody more than me.

Consider it my parting gift to the Mizzou beat.

That’s because Saturday will be the last game, press conference, etc., that I cover as The Star’s MU beat writer.

Let’s take a look back as we finish up the final Ask Tod:

There’s always been a soft spot in my heart for the kids I covered in high school and covered again at Mizzou. That partial list of Kansas City natives includes Lucas Vincent, Drew Lock, Shane Ray, Kevin Puryear, Logan Cheadle, Kevin Pendleton, Anthony Sherrils, Marcus Lucas, E.J. Gaines, Kendall Blanton, Evan Boehm, Clay Rhodes, Andrew Wilson, Kaleb Prewett and Charles Harris. In most cases, I did signing day stories, covered Simone Award ceremonies, interviewed them after big prep games, debated their All-Metro cases — and that history makes those relationships special for me.

There are other guys who were just a joy to befriend on the beat, because of their warmth, generosity, intellect and honesty — Mitch Morse, Markus Golden, Andrew Baggett, Ian Simon, Max Copeland, Marcus Murphy, Paul Adams, J’Mon Moore, Sophie and Lindsey Cunningham, and most recently Emanuel Hall, Terrence Phillips and Kobie Whiteside.

But if I had to pick just one athlete who was the complete package — a champion, a great quote, uncommonly gregarious and magnanimous and generous, and just thrilling and amazing to watch at every turn — it’s probably J’den Cox.

Football-wise, coming onto the beat for the back-to-back SEC Championship Game seasons was cool. I’ll never forget the text I received from Bob Dutton in the press box at Indiana before my first official game as Mizzou’s beat writer nor the struggle to get back to Indianapolis that night (rookie beat writer travel problems).

The tweet Dutton fired off before the victory at Georgia a few weeks later, which was immediately liked by Terez and Melly, remains legendary.

The majesty and hospitality of the Cotton Bowl was an incredible experience. (Yes, even the Train concert, David.) I don’t know that the boycott was a “favorite” moment, per se, but it was incredible to have a front-row seat to history.

As for basketball, I never got to cover an NCAA Tournament game, missed out on the tourney in Hawaii, was robbed of a honeymoon in Puerto Rico by the Zika virus, didn’t get the green light to go to Italy last summer (unlike some lucky people), and covered teams that went 50-80 during four seasons without ever managing a conference record better than .500 (17-55 SEC). Missouri’s lost 35 straight road games and I was at most of them — though I did meet Morgan Freeman last year at Mississippi, shake his hand and thank him for “The Story of God with Morgan Freeman,” which made that trip totally worth it.

Anyway, enough whining. The better memories that stand out are Ryan Rosburg’s late-season surge, Jordan & Jabari against Kentucky, Puryear’s game-winner against Auburn in the SEC tourney, and covering Michael Porter Jr. at the McDonald’s All-American Game off the top of my head.

I’ll leave you with one real quick story: After Missouri’s loss to Lipscomb last January, I texted a friend in the coaching world and asked might be interested in the job and how good of an opening it was anymore, assuming that Kim Anderson wouldn’t be back for 2017-18 at that point. The reply listed five names with Cuonzo Martin at the top.

Anytime I was asked after that, who I thought might/should replace Anderson and would flourish with the Tigers, I always said Cuonzo — in public, in private, at Tiger Club, in the bowels of Mizzou Arena. I truly believe he’s going to do great things with that program, especially having Jim Sterk at his back.

I’ve also had friends and colleagues say I’d get along with Cuonzo really well, because he’s a tremendous person and I — well, I tend to grow on people like moss on a tree over time. Not getting to develop that relationship and get an inside view of the upcoming season is the only regret about the new role with The Star. After so much bad basketball, I felt like I’d earned the excitement of a great basketball season and also viewed next year’s team trip to the Virgin Islands in November 2018 as a form of back hazard pay. I’ve been robbed y’all.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer