Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (LT, LG, C, RG, TE, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (WILB, MLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 8-4 (UGA, MSU, UT, Ark)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (UGA, MSU, UT, Ark)
Projected SEC East Record: 4-2 (UGA, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Pr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
Missouri has earned the respect no one wanted to give it when it first joined the SEC. For each of the last two years, the Tigers have played the upstart role in the SEC East, taking out heavily-favored Georgia and, at least briefly, getting itself into the national championship discussion in 2013. In 2015, though, the personnel losses of the previous year may be too much to overcome. Missouri is rebuilding its skill talent on offense and its front on defense. Sketchy special teams will add to the drama, but history would demand the Tigers not be counted out just yet.
The Tigers will run a pure spread attack, with an aggressive tempo. The Tigers use the pass to set up the run, and are a finesse offense in just about every measure. For 2015, the wide receiver corps is a potential disaster area, while there is little depth at running back and consistency issues at quarterback. Gary Pinkel will earn his money this season.
Maty Mauk could be one of the best SEC quarterbacks … or one of the worst. His story is not written yet, but the 2014 SEC Championship Game was a microcosm of Mauk’s world: Mind-blowing throws one minute, mind-numbingly bad ones the next. Mauk plays the position similar to the way Slim Pickens rode rockets in “Dr. Strangelove,” but at the moment, he’s the best option Missouri has. Backup Eddie Printz is highly thought-of in some circles, but wasn’t close to pushing Mauk for the job last year. Printz finished the season throwing exactly one pass, which was incomplete. Behind them is Corbin Berkstresser, who briefly started two seasons ago when a rash of injuries hit the position. As such, Missouri has impressive depth relative to some of its peers. But Mauk must get more consistent for the Tigers to step up to the next level.
Russell Hansbrough is a useful part in a good offense, but at 5’9” and 190 pounds, he’s too small to be an every-down, between-the-tackles runner in the SEC. Hansbrough did roll up 1,084 yards in 2014, but those yards were more a product of the Missouri system than any special ability he had. Still, defenses have to account for him. They did not, however, have to account for Ish Witter, who will be Hansbrough’s primary backup this season. Witter rushed for 3.7 yards per carry, only slightly better than Mauk did out of the QB position, and broke few tackles. JUCO transfer Chase Abbington would appear to be a threat to Witter’s status on the depth chart, as he weighs some 30 pounds more than either Witter or Hansbrough and had a good resume at his previous level. Walk-on Tyler Hunt is also in the mix, along with signee Marquise Doherty. Missouri doesn’t use a fullback. An injury to Hansbrough would be nearly lethal to Missouri given Witter’s struggles last year, especially if Abbington takes time to get accustomed to SEC play.
As far as actual wide receivers go, the leading returning receiver on this team is Nate Brown, who caught 5 passes total in 2014 and averaged just 9 yards per catch. The player with the greatest potential to break out is probably senior Wesley Leftwich, who caught 3 passes over 10 games but is considered a physical player with good upside. The slot receiver will likely be either Eric Laurent or J’Mon Moore. Laurent, at 6’3” and 215 pounds, is probably the most physical of the Tiger receivers. Freshmen Thomas Richard and DeSean Blair form the next line, along with true freshman Justin Smith, who is an eye-popping 6’7”. While it would seem just a matter of time before Smith bulked up and transitioned to tight end, he seems adamant that he can play wide receiver. The leading returning receiver overall is tight end Sean Culkin, who caught 20 passes but wasn’t a downfield threat. Hansbrough is second on the returning leaders’ list. If Culkin can improve a bit at tight end – his blocking skills must also get more consistent – then Missouri might have something. Jason Reese will back up Culkin, with Clayton Echard and Kendall Blanton also competing for playing time. But expect this unit to struggle, especially early on.
Missouri is solid at three of the five starting positions. Left tackle Taylor Chappell, center Evan Boehm and right guard Conner McGovern, all seniors, should give Missouri a nucleus around which it can build. The problem here is that Alabama’s athletic defensive line left no doubt in anyone’s mind that Missouri just isn’t on the same level as most of its SEC peers. Chappell and McGovern are overachievers, but Boehm has some potential star power. The left guard slot will be either Mitch Hall or Brad McNulty, both of whom have starting experience. Neither was much of a factor in 2014. The right tackle job, held out of the spring by sophomore Clay Rhodes, is the only position with completely new personnel. Depth isn’t fantastic; Nate Crawford will back up both tackle slots, while the loser of the Hall-McNulty battle gets to be the swing guard. A redshirt freshman, Andy Bauer, will spell Boehm at center. Missouri is expecting improvement over 2014 and might get it, but injuries would be damaging.
The Tigers will operate from a 4-3 set, with a new coordinator, Barry Odom, taking over for long-time coordinator Dave Steckel, who moved on to take a head coaching job. Steckel’s work in 2014 may have been his best to date, as Missouri ranked 19th in scoring defense and 23rd in total defense despite having to work around an offense that didn’t always keep the other team off the field long enough. The biggest problem facing Odom in 2015 is a defensive line that was wrecked, both by graduation and an offseason injury to a starting tackle. The rest of the defense should be OK, but Steckel’s ability to get his charges to overachieve was just as much responsible for Missouri’s success as talent ever was. Can Odom replicate Steckel’s abilities there? Only time will tell.
Missouri suffered a huge loss when Harold Brantley was involved in a major car accident in June and was subsequently lost for the 2015 season. Without Brantley in the mix, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers doing much up the middle. Juniors Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley will be the likely starters. Augusta, at 335 pounds, should be able to hold the nosetackle position without much trouble, but Hatley is much less a certainty. True freshman Terry Beckner Jr. will push Hatley right out of the gate for the starting job. A.J. Logan is the only other player with enough bulk to play inside. Defensive end was thought to be in better hands coming out of the spring, but promising sophomore Marcus Loud was dismissed from the team. That leaves just Charles Harris as a proven quantity at the position. Depth doesn’t exist. JUCO transfer Marcel Frazier, who might be better suited to tackle in a 3-4, will likely be forced into service. Spencer Williams and Rocel McWilliams are the current second-teamers, and are typical young Missouri ends: undersized but promising. Walter Brady and Eddie Serrano fill out the list.
Kentrell Brothers, the starter at weakside linebacker, is one of the SEC’s best players at the position. Michael Scherer, who returns at middle linebacker, isn’t the flashiest guy but he gets the job done. Missouri will need a new start at strongside linebacker; Donavin Newsom held down the job coming out of spring. The second unit is formed by Eric Biesel in the middle, with freshman Brandon Lee and journeyman senior Clarence Green alongside. Missouri has made it a habit of growing linebackers organically, then shifting the starting lineup to take advantage of which players are the most ready in a particular season, and that’s what is happening again in 2015. Don’t look for this unit to be vulnerable.
Three starters return, including both cornerbacks. Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton did a commendable job in coverage in 2014, but with the defensive line blown apart over the offseason, Missouri will find out quickly what the secondary is really made of. Free safety Ian Simon does his job well, if quietly, but there is concern at strong safety, where Anthony Sherrils, Cortland Browning and Thomas Wilson are competing. Sherrils and Browning are seniors that are taking on increased roles. At corner, John Gibson offers a fine third option and potential as a nickel safety, while David Johnson has senior-level experience, but isn’t a playmaker. Younger players such as Cam Hilton and T.J. Warren might get a look if the upperclassmen struggle.
Placekicker Andrew Baggett has been frustratingly average so far in his career; he’s a senior in 2015, so it’s now or never. The punter job is wide open, though, and Baggett could figure there as well. True freshman Corey Fatony joins holdovers Dayton Balvanz and Tom Kalish in the battle. The return game is completely up in the air. John Gibson is expected to compete for both jobs, but he had only 1 return in 2014. That’s one more than most of his competitors for the job, however.