Missouri was by far the biggest overachiever in the SEC in 2013, when good quarterback play, a solid running game and the emergence of three receivers helped the Tigers win the SEC East and likely save Gary Pinkel’s job in the process. But 2014 will bring change – the quarterback, running back and all three of the team’s top wide receivers are gone, and Missouri is beginning to deal with talent deficiencies on defense.
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (FL, LT, C, RT)
Returning Defensive Starters: 4 (DT, NG, MLB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 7-5 (TAM, UF, UGA, UCF, USC)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (TAM, UF, UGA, USC)
Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UF, UGA, USC)
Missouri is a spread offensive team, and like most spread outfits over the past couple of seasons, has turned up the tempo. The Tigers have a lot of holes to fill, but outside of receiver, they should be able to capably replace most of the production they lost. Keeping the running game effective is a huge key to success.
James Franklin is out, and Maty Mauk is in. Franklin led by example and heart; Mauk often leads with his mouth. Many see a less elusive version of Johnny Manziel in Mauk’s game, and his 2013 season – which included a handful of games as the starter when Franklin was out – uncovered a significant boom-bust aspect to Mauk’s game. There’s no reason to think he won’t succeed, but if problems do arise, Missouri has ample depth with star-of-tomorrow Eddie Printz and junior Corbin Berkstresser, who was the starter for much of the 2012 season. If Mauk develops as Missouri hopes he will, the Tigers could have an even more effective passing game in 2014 than they did a year ago.
Henry Josey was finally healthy in 2013, and as a result, the Tigers ranked 16th in the country in rushing offense despite being a pass-first team. With Josey moving on, the job is back in the hands of Russell Hansbrough, who held it two years ago while Josey was rehabilitating a leg injury. Hansbrough and backup Marcus Murphy both did a splendid job of backing up Josey last year, combining for almost 1,300 yards while coming off the bench. The downside is that both are scatback types, whereas Josey could bang inside, so the interior and short-yardage rushing games will need a new specialist. Sophomore Morgan Steward might be the name to watch there. The Tigers do not use a fullback.
Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington had already graduated, and then Dorial Green-Beckham finally blew his last chance and was released from school. While Missouri gets props for doing the necessary thing, the loss of Green-Beckham did leave the Tigers in a pinch. Slot receiver Bud Sasser is now the go-to guy, but he’s not a vertical receiver by any stretch. Jimmie Hunt gives Missouri a good second option, but a third starter is needed and will likely come from a group that includes Darius White, J’Mon Moore or a signee like Nate Brown. Walk-on Gavin Otte and sophomore Eric Laurent have a chance to grab time. Levi Copelin was set to be a regular member of the rotation, but was suspended for off-field reasons. A new tight end must be found, with Sean Culkin and Jason Reese the tallest and most likely of the candidates.
Three starters return from a group that played put up some of the best OL play in school history. Mitch Morse moves from right tackle to left tackle, Connor McGovern moves from right guard to right tackle, and Evan Boehm returns at center. Missouri will need new guards, but the Tigers have experienced options. Anthony Gatti has been a key reserve for a couple of years, and Mitch Hall should be fine at right guard. Stephen Carberry and Jordan Williams will back up the guard positions, while Brad McNulty can handle center and Taylor Chappell and young stud Clay Rhodes get the tackle duties. Missouri had 22 offensive linemen listed on its post-spring roster, so overall depth ought not to be an issue.
The Tigers play a fast version of a 4-3 that takes chances and tries to cover up its relative lack of bulk. Missouri also needs to solve the riddle of pass defense. Despite getting a solid season out of CB E.J. Gaines and a good pass rush from its ends, the Tigers ranked 107th in pass defense and that can’t continue. The Tigers also have depth concerns in the front seven, and there’s a question about the overall talent level of this unit.
Ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray were backups to Michael Sam and Kony Ealy last year, but they were productive when given opportunities and no one expects much of a drop-off. Tackles Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch return to their starting roles, although Harold Brantley was pushing Vincent in the spring. Josh Augusta will back up Hoch. Beyond those four, though, there aren’t a lot of options inside. Marcus Loud and might be the next name up, along with Nate Crawford.
Kentrell Brothers will shift from weakside linebacker to the middle and try to help plug the hole left by the departure of Andrew Wilson. Whether that works or not is a question in and of itself; the other question – whether Michael Scherer and Darvin Ruise can be the answer at the two outside linebacker posts – is probably the bigger one. Donavin Newsom, Clarence Green, Eric Beisel and Brandon Lee will fight it out to see who backs up the starters. If Brothers can’t handle being the quarterback of the defense, it’s going to be a long season.
As bad as Missouri was in 2013, the Tigers could always count on E.J. Gaines taking the lead at cornerback. His departure leaves a tremendous void. Braylon Webb is the lone returning starter, and he’ll anchor the strong safety spot next to free safety Ian Simon. At corner, John Gibson will probably take one spot, with Aarion Penton, Kenya Dennis and David Johnson working at the other. True freshman Tavon Ross could be the next star. Dennis, a junior college transfer, is expected to make an early impact.
Andrew Baggett is one of those kickers that infuriates coaches and fan bases alike. He’s got tremendous talent, but is sketchy with the game on the line. Punter Christian Brinser returns for his senior year and figures to be in the conference’s top half of punting talent. Marcus Murphy will likely be asked to handle return duties. There’s no reason to believe Missouri won’t be solid in the kicking game.
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