Opinions vary greatly on Missouri’s immediate future in the SEC. On one hand, this is a team that has become a dangerous offensive presence under head coach Gary Pinkel; on the other, the defense is small and has developed the reputation for playing soft football. In Missouri’s first year in the SEC, the Tigers bring an experienced offensive group with talent at quarterback and at receiver, but a defense that is rebuilding up front. Over the long haul, Missouri should become a solid addition to the conference, but in 2012, the Tigers will be looking mostly to keep their heads on straight.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (FL, LG, RG, RT, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (LDE, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (UA, TAM, UGA, USC, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 3-5 (UA, TAM, UGA, USC, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 3-3 (UGA, USC, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
The Tigers run the variant of spread offense the Big 12 was most known for over the past several years. There is no fullback, there are at least three wide receivers in the pattern on every snap and the blocking schemes are more about finesse than physicality. The Tigers return most of their offensive weapons from 2011 and have good veteran leadership throughout the depth chart. The big question is whether the running game is physical enough for the SEC despite finishing 9th nationally in rushing offense last year.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
When SEC fans hear the name James Franklin, they typically begin talking about the resurgence of Vanderbilt football. But the Missouri quarterback of the same name will be recognized sooner rather than later. Franklin is a true dual-threat competitor who was the team’s leading passer and its leading rusher in 2011. Franklin suffered a shoulder injury in the spring that concerns Missouri coaches even now, especially knowing the pounding he’ll take in his new league. If he stays healthy, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the country. If he gets hurt, Missouri is in a mess. The Tigers have one of the most dire backup quarterback situations in the league, with freshman Corbin Berkstresser the leading candidate to spell Franklin. Another freshman, signee Maty Mauk, is the only other player of note. Missouri has other options, but all are underclassmen. Keeping Franklin healthy is paramount.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 9th overall)
Missouri’s top three tailbacks have speed and talent, but not size. None break the 5’10” barrier nor the 200-pound barrier. Kendial Lawrence is the best of the group, and big things are expected of him after a strong finish to the 2011 season. Sophomore Marcus Murphy is the running back of the future, while Russell Hansbrough, a true freshman, had SEC offers. He’s a pure scatback. When Missouri needs a lead blocker, or a short-yardage specialist, it turns to Jared McGriff-Culver. Culver is about the size of Alabama’s Jalston Fowler and is a senior. The Missouri offensive style is to use the pass to open lanes and set up the run for its small, quick backs.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 3rd overall)
Senior T.J. Moe is one of the leading receivers in school history. He doesn’t have great height, but has good speed, a good build and a talent for running routes and getting open. A pair of experienced juniors, Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington, round out the starting group. Both are over 6’4” and can jump. Missouri has more good size coming off the bench in the form of senior Rolandis Woodland (6’3”), Jaleel Clark (6’4”) and Levi Copelin (6’2”). Gahn McGaffie and Bud Sasser add depth. And then there’s Dorial Green-Beckham, the top-rated wide receiver recruit of the 2012 class, who is working at both receiver and tight end. Missouri uses its tight ends as wide receivers more than blockers, and starter Eric Waters is the biggest on the roster at 6’4”, 240 pounds. Brandon Holifield is his top backup at just 215 pounds, and is a true freshman.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
Missouri returns three starters from 2011 and adds a fourth who has starting experience. Not only did the 2011 group lead the way for the 9th-ranked rushing attack in Division-IA, Missouri was a respectable 33rd in sacks allowed. Travis Ruth and Jack Meiners return at the guard positions, while Justin Britt is back at right tackle. At left tackle, Elvis Fisher is back for a sixth year after suffering an injury early in the 2011 season. The only real question is at center, where sophomore Mitch Morse leads freshman Brad McNulty and sophomore Robert Luce for the job. The line’s average size is a bit under the league average.
The Tigers utilize a 4-3 base scheme, but ranked just 61st last year in total defense and had trouble against both running and passing games. The strength of the 2012 defense figures to be the linebacker corps thanks to experience and good speed off the corner. But the defensive line is a problem spot. Missouri will need to improve both its scheme and its personnel quickly in order to compete in the SEC on a weekly basis.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 11th overall)
Other than strongside end Brad Madison, there isn’t much to cheer here. Madison has a high motor and can pressure the quarterback, but he can’t do it alone. Tackle Sheldon Richardson has talent, but must stay healthy. The other two positions seem to be falling to journeyman senior tackle Jimmy Burge and sophomore end Kony Ealy. Nosetackle, Burge’s position, is of much concern. Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley and Lucas Vincent provide depth inside, while Michael Sam and Shane Ray provide depth at end. Sam is even pushing Madison for playing time. If the Missouri team has a critical weakness, here it is.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 8th overall)
The name to watch here is weakside linebacker Zaviar Gooden, a senior entering his third year as a starter. Gooden has good size, is quick off the corner and is drawing NFL attention. Andrew Wilson returns at strongside linebacker. In the middle is senior Will Ebner, a long-time backup. Darvin Ruise and Donovan Bonner provide depth behind Gooden and Ebner, but it’s freshman Kentrell Brothers who is drawing most attention as a star of the future. Several other players are lined up behind this group to offer depth, most notably signee Michael Scherer, so the Tigers appear set for a few years. All have good size and decent athleticism.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av; 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
Cornerback E.J. Gaines will be playing in the NFL sooner rather than later, and fellow cornerback Kip Edwards combines with Gaines to provide Missouri one of the best duos in the conference. Depth behind them is good, with Randy Ponder and Xavier Smith the chief backups. The Tigers are breaking in two new starters at safety, but both of them, strong safety Kenronte Walker and free safety Braylon Webb, have plenty of game experience. Daniel Easterly and Matt White are their backups. Courtland Browning, Ernest Payton and Ian Simon are next in line. Competition is fierce at all four positions, and Edwards and Webb have suffered through injuries recently, so the makeup of this unit figures to change on a regular basis.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Av; 2nd SEC East, 7th overall)
Trey Barrow handled both jobs in 2011, but he’s not likely to repeat that performance in 2012. Freshman Andrew Baggett had a strong spring and has supplanted Barrow as the placekicker. Barrow will continue to punt, though, as he set a school record for average kick distance in 2011. The Tigers were mediocre in both kick and punt returns, and hope Marcus Murphy can give them a spark. T.J. Moe will also return kicks.
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