Campus Corner

Mizzou spring football primer: Position-by-position breakdown

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock looked to pass during the Tigers’ Nov. 14 college football game against Brigham Young at Arrowhead Stadium.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock looked to pass during the Tigers’ Nov. 14 college football game against Brigham Young at Arrowhead Stadium. skeyser@kcstar.com

Spring football returns Tuesday as Missouri opens camp under new coach Barry Odom for the first of 15 practices and scrimmages, culminating with the annual Black & Gold Game at 5 p.m. April 16 on Faurot Field in Columbia.

Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of key contributors the Tigers return, key losses that must be replaced and new faces who weren’t on last season’s active roster who will be looking to make an impact this spring.

Most of the incoming freshman aren’t included among the key additions, because only a handful are on campus (though many are mentioned in the outlook sections). Redshirt freshman, however, are included among the key additions as they obviously weren’t impact players for Missouri last season:

2016 MISSOURI SPRING FOOTBALL POSITION BREAKDOWN

* Denotes returning starter

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks

Top returning players: QB Drew Lock*, sophomore; QB Marvin Zanders, sophomore

Key losses: QB Maty Mauk (dismissed), QB Eddie Printz (transfer to Texas State)

Key additions: QB Jack Lowary, sophomore (transfer from Long Beach City College)

Outlook: Lock’s arm was about to fall off in January. It was the same for Zanders as they were the only arms Missouri had available to throw to a stocked cupboard of wide receivers/tight ends during offseason workouts. The addition of Lowary, a sophomore transfer who prepped at Mater Dei in Los Angeles, relieves some of that pressure and ramps up the competition this spring.

Lock started the final eight games last season after Mauk’s suspension. He was put behind a struggling offensive line, given an inexperienced group of receivers which struggled to get open and paired with an ineffective running game. Lock only completed 129 of 263 passes — an icy 49.0 percent — for 1,332 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions. Still, he’s clearly the front-runner for the starting job in new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense.

Mizzou needs a big season from Lock, who also dealt with a shoulder injury last year, to turn around an offense that was among the worst in the nation last season. It will be interesting to see how Zanders is deployed. It’s possible there will be special packages — run-option type stuff — built into the offense to take advantage of his athleticism. Freshman Micah Wilson from Tulsa will add more depth and competition when he arrives in June.

Offensive line

Top returning players: LG Alec Abeln*, junior; RT Nate Crawford*, junior; LT Malik Cuellar, senior; C Sam Bailey, sophomore; RG Kevin Pendleton, sophomore; RT Paul Adams, sophomore; RT Clay Rhodes, junior, OL Andy Bauer, sophomore

Key losses: LT Connor McGovern (graduated), C Evan Boehm (graduated), LG Brad McNulty (graduated), RG Mitch Hall (graduated), RT Taylor Chappell (graduated)

Key additions: OL Tyler Howell, junior (transfer from Butler CC), OL Tanner Owen, redshirt freshman; OL A.J. Harris, redshirt freshman

Outlook: Missouri was thin up front last season and loses its two best offensive linemen — center Evan Boehm, a four-year starter, and left tackle Connor McGovern, a physical freak — to graduation. Both are going to be drafted into the NFL next month and leave behind massive voids.

Juniors Alec Abeln and Nate Crawford are the only two returning players with starting experience. Abeln and sophomore Sam Bailey are in the mix along with redshirt freshman A.J. Harris to replace Boehm at center. Missouri needs Bonner Springs graduate Tyler Howell, a transfer from Butler (Kan.) Community College, to emerge as a dominant force at left tackle.

The Tigers feel good about the progress sophomores Paul Adams and Kevin Pendleton, a Lee’s Summit West graduate, made last season, but both need to continue to make strides under new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee. It also would help immensely if senior Malik Cuellar and junior Clay Rhodes stepped up after disappointing campaigns in 2015. Mizzou also hopes that East St. Louis (Ill.) guard prospect Tre’vour Simms is ready to make an impact when he arrives this summer.

Running backs

Top returning players: TB Ish Witter, junior; TB Chase Abbington, junior; TB Trevon Walters, sophomore

Key losses: TB Russell Hansbrough (graduated), TB Tyler Hunt (graduated), TB Morgan Steward (retired, hip injury)

Key additions: TB Ryan Williams, redshirt freshman; TB Marquise Doherty, redshirt freshman (also plays baseball)

Outlook: The solutions for Missouri at running back may not be apparent during the spring, because Natereace Strong, an East St. Louis (Ill.) graduate who detoured through Hinds Community College in Mississippi, and Damarea Crockett, a true freshman from Little Rock, Ark., might emerge in fall camp as the workhorses for Heupel’s offense.

Until then, the Tigers are thin in the backfield after losing Hansbrough and Hunt to graduation and Steward to retirement because of complications from a hip injury suffered before the 2014 season. Witter actually led Mizzou in all-purpose yards last season, but he only totaled 661 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry with one total touchdown. He’s the most-experienced running back on the roster.

Perhaps Walters, who was part of the same 2014 recruiting class as Witter, or Abbington, who struggled to find reps after transferring from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College last season, are ready to contribute more for Cornell Ford’s position group. Ford moved from cornerbacks coach.

Wide receivers

Top returning players: WR J’Mon Moore*, junior; WR Nate Brown*, junior; WR Emanuel Hall, sophomore; WR Eric Laurent, senior; WR Cam Hilton, sophomore; WR Ray Wingo, sophomore; WR Keyon Dilosa, sophomore; WR DeSean Blair, sophomore

Key losses: WR Wesley Leftwich (graduated)

Key additions: WR Chris Black, senior (graduate-student transfer from Alabama); WR Justin Smith, redshirt freshman; WR Johnathon Johnson, redshirt freshman; WR Ronnell Perkins, redshirt freshman; WR Richaud Floyd, redshirt freshman

Outlook: Receiver was a problem area for Missouri last season. The good news is that the top two pass-catchers return, but the bad news is that Moore and Brown only combined for 56 catches, 676 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Alabama graduate-student transfer Chris Black brings much-needed experience and should contribute immediately, if he stays healthy.

A promising sophomore group — Hall, converted safety Hilton, converted cornerback Wingo, Dilosa and Blair — had quality moments at times last season, but Missouri needs one or two of those players to emerge in a much bigger way. Spring will also be a chance for redshirt freshmen Smith, Johnson and Floyd to shine and prove they can make an impact for Andy Hill’s position group. Hill returned to wide receivers from quarterbacks coach.

Dominic Collins, a junior college transfer from Saddleback Community College in California, and Harry Ballard III, a late addition to the 2016 signing class, are intriguing additions come June.

Tight ends

Top returning players: TE Sean Culkin*, senior; TE Jason Reese, junior; TE Kendall Blanton, sophomore

Key losses: TE Clayton Echard (graduated)

Key additions: None for the spring.

Outlook: Expect more changes in how Missouri uses its tight ends and perhaps even more two tight-end sets. Culkin and Reese are established commodities, while Blanton and Albert Okwuegbunam, who arrives in June, are raw but fantastically promising (and intriguing) prospects. Brendan Scales, a late flip from his Alabama commitment, also could push for a spot on the depth chart after arriving this summer.

DEFENSE

Defensive ends

Top returning players: DE Charles Harris*, junior; DE Walter Brady, sophomore; DE Spencer Williams, sophomore; DE Marcell Frazier, junior; DE Nate Howard, sophomore

Key losses: None

Key additions: None for the spring.

Outlook: Harris is a stud, we’re talking SEC-defensive-player-of-the-year caliber. He made 56 tackles, including 18 1/2 for a loss with seven sacks and 10 hurries last season. Harris was just getting warmed up as was Brady, who earned freshman All-American honors after amassing 40 tackles, including 12 1/2 for a loss with seven sacks and seven hurries. The Tigers also return plenty of depth on the edge and will add Columbia-Rock Bridge four-star prospect Tre Williams to the mix in June.

Defensive tackles

Top returning players: DT Terry Beckner Jr.*, sophomore; DT Harold Brantley*, senior; DT Josh Augusta, senior; NG Rickey Hatley*, senior; NG A.J. Logan, junior; DT Josh Moore, sophomore

Key losses: None

Key additions: DT Tyrell Jacobs, redshirt freshman

Outlook: There’s a lot of talent returning on the interior of the defensive line, but there also are a lot of question marks. Brantley is recovering from injuries suffered last June in a car accident and Beckner is rehabbing from knee surgery after tearing ligaments Nov. 14 against BYU. If both return anywhere near the form from before they were injured, this is a monster group with loads of talent and experience. New defensive coordinator Jackie Shipp, who came from Arizona State after Craig Kuligowski wasn’t retained and Chris Wilson bolted for the NFL’s Eagles barely a month after he was hired, has to smile looking at the D-line group with whom he gets to work.

Linebackers

Top returning players: LB Michael Scherer*, senior; LB Donavin Newsom*, senior; LB Joey Burkett, junior; LB Brandon Lee, sophomore; LB Terez Hall, sophomore, LB Eric Beisel, junior

Key losses: LB Kentrell Brothers (graduated), LB Clarence Green (graduated)

Key additions: LB Trey Baldwin, freshman (Cypress Falls, Texas); LB Franklin Agbasimere, redshirt freshman; LB Cale Garrett, freshman (Kearney)

Outlook: Replacing Brothers is impossible, let’s face it. He led the nation in tackles last season with 152 and his 274 the last two seasons also are the most in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Brothers’ instincts were impeccable and his impact undeniable.

Still, Scherer and Newsom, who totaled 156 tackles and 18 for a loss, bring plenty of experience to the position and should be in for monster senior seasons. There’s depth with Burkett, Lee, Beisel and Hall. Plus, Baldwin plays the game like a heat-seeking missile and could provide immediate impact, especially with the benefit of spring practice. New defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and Odom shouldn’t have any trouble coaching up this bunch.

Cornerbacks

Top returning players: CB Aarion Penton*, senior; CB John Gibson, senior; CB Logan Cheadle, junior; CB Anthony Hines, junior; CB Finis Stribling IV, sophomore

Key losses: CB Kenya Dennis (graduated)

Key additions: CB T.J. Warren, redshirt freshman

Outlook: With the lack of depth at safety, there could be some moving pieces here, but Penton, Gibson, Cheadle and Hines, who transferred from junior college last August, are locked in and give the Tigers depth and experience at a critical position. This is a rock-solid group under new cornerbacks coach Greg Brown, who joined Odom’s staff from Louisville.

Safeties

Top returning players: S Anthony Sherrils*, junior; S Thomas Wilson, junior; S Tavon Ross, sophomore

Key losses: S Ian Simon (graduated), S Cortland Browning (graduated)

Key additions: None for the spring.

Outlook: Simon’s loss is immense. He had 46 tackles and two interceptions last season, but Sherrils is a rising star and poised to emerge as the leader on the defense’s back end. He recorded 64 tackles last season, third most on the team behind only Brothers and Scherer, and hasn’t yet reached his full promise.

Wilson and Ross have battled injury issues, but remain promising prospects. Of course, East St. Louis (Ill.) graduate Greg Taylor, who finally makes it to Columbia after a stop at Hinds Community College in Mississippi, will get a chance to claim a starting spot this summer under safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Specialists

Top returning players: P Corey Fatony*, sophomore; LS Jake Hurrell*, senior; H Eric Laurent, senior, P Dayton Balvanz, senior

Key losses: K Andrew Baggett (graduated), H Eddie Printz (transferred to Texas State)

Key additions: K Tucker McCann, freshman (O’Fallon, Ill.)

Outlook: Fatony was a stud last year and only will get better. McCann’s early enrollment gives him a leg up — yes, I see what I did there — to replace Baggett. If neither is injured, having young studs at those positions ought to be of great comfort to Odom, who will take a significant role in managing special teams. Hurrell is a steady. The best quality for any long snapper is anonymity, so he’s been excellent in that regard. Printz’s transfer was a bigger deal for what it meant to Missouri’s quarterback depth, but it also breaks up the band on long snaps. Laurent, who was recently put on scholarship, should be able to fill in fine.

Returners

Top returning players: PR Aarion Penton*, senior; KR John Gibson*, senior; PR Cam Hilton, sophomore; KR Finis Stribling IV, sophomore; KR Anthony Sherrils, junior

Key losses: PR Ian Simon (graduated), PR/KR Johnathon Johnson, redshirt freshman

Key additions: None for the spring

Outlook: The return game was one of those hidden weaknesses for Missouri last season. Collectively, the Tigers averaged a paltry 15.1 yards on kickoff returns — the worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision by more than 1.5 yards. That’s staggering. Punt returns weren’t much better, averaging 5.9 yards per return to rank 100th among 128 FBS teams. It’s an area in which Mizzou absolutely must improve.

Sherrils was the most productive kickoff returner for the Tigers, but lost his starting job to Gibson and later Stribling. Expect those three to get another crack at it. The same holds true for Penton and Hilton on punt returns, but don’t be surprised if Johnson or another up-and-comer works his way into the conversation. No matter who goes deep, Mizzou’s got to block better in those situations to improve its hidden yards and help an offense that needs it.

  Comments