Overview: Missouri, which finished 2015 under clouds of adversity and criticism thanks to strife on its campus – not to mention the way former coach Gary Pinkel chose to handle it – is now playing under a new head coach, if not a new philosophy. Long-time assistant Barry Odom took over for Pinkel, and didn’t take long to get the press chirping about his decision-making, given one of his moves was to boot DL coach Craig Kuligowski, one of the best in the SEC. On the field, this is a team with an anemic offense and a defense that must always overachieve. Odom may be facing a tough debut
Projected record: 4-8 (Ark, LSU, UF, UGA, UK, WVU, USC, UT); 1-7 and 6th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 5 (QB, SE, FL, TE, LG)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDE, RDT, LDE, SLB, MLB, RCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (P)
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Pr LB: Av
WR: Av DB: Fr
OL: Pr ST: Fr
Offensive breakdown: Pinkel’s preferred offensive scheme was a softer-than-usual version of the Big 12 spread. Odom has committed to being more physical on offense, but he simply doesn’t have the tools in 2016. Quarterback Drew Lock got beaten half to death in his freshman campaign, thanks to an offensive line that was too gentle for the job. Former starter Maty Mauk was kicked off the team, so if Lock (129-of-263, 49.0%, 1,332 yards, 4 TD, 8 INT) struggles again, Missouri will have to dig out the offense using either Marvin Zanders or perhaps true freshman Micah Wilson. Zanders is barely 180 pounds, not ideal in the SEC.
The other problem with Odom’s desire to get more physical is that the Tigers’ running game, which has been about finesse for years, regressed with the graduation loss of Russell Hansbrough. Presumptive starter Ish Witter has yet to be effective as an SEC back. He averaged just 4 yards per carry last year and scored only one touchdown on the ground. The biggest running back on the roster in the spring was Marquise Doherty, who isn’t on the fall roster. Odom tried to recruit bigger players for the fall, getting Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross and signing Nate Strong and Damarea Crockett. Witter is hurt, meaning either Ross or Crockett is likely to be the man when the games start.
At receiver, an injury will keep the team’s best receiver, Nate Brown, on the bench for probably the first half of the year. J’Mon Moore becomes the bellcow, and Keyon Dilosa, who had a solid spring, and Alabama transfer Chris Black will round out the starting threesome. Richaud Floyd, Eric Laurent and 6’7” freshman Justin Smith will add depth. Perhaps the best option of all is tight end Sean Culkin, one of the SEC’s most underrated at the position.
The offensive line, though, may be a bust. The lone returning starter, Nate Crawford, had back surgery in the offseason and was forced to quit football. That leaves Missouri with only one really promising player, left tackle Tyler Howell, a JUCO transfer. Alec Abein gets the center assignment, while Kevin Pendleton and Paul Adams start at right guard and right tackle, respectively. Both are closer to being liabilities than strengths. Freshman Trevour Simms, recruited as an offensive tackle, looks like Crawford’s replacement at left guard despite badly needing a redshirt year. Three freshman and a sophomore make up the second unit.
Defensive/ST breakdown: Missouri always seems to have a strong defensive line that overachieves, and 2016 should be no different. Junior end Charles Harris is the undisputed star of the show. Harris is expected to get a first-round draft grade going into 2017 if he chooses to come out early. His counterpart was set to be sophomore Walter Brady, who was a terror as a freshman, but he was dismissed from the team at the start of fall camp. Nate Howard and Marcell Frazier will probably split the position now. Missouri has some depth inside, as Rickey Hatley, Terry Beckner Jr. and Josh Augusta form the solid base for the Tigers’ 4-3 system. Josh Moore will also compete there. The Tigers need at least one more end to step up in Brady’s absence.
Donavin Newsome and Michael Scherer form the nucleus of a veteran linebacker group that has enough depth and quality to be competitive among its own members. Joey Burkett, Brandon Lee and Terez Hall will fight for the open weakside spot. Freshman Trey Baldwin has already made an impact in the middle. The secondary overachieved in 2015 and Odom is hoping they do it again. Aarion Penton returns and cornerback and Anthony Sherrils returns at safety. T.J. Warren had made a big move in spring camp but a hamstring injury has limited him in the fall. Veterans John Gibson and Logan Cheadle now look like better bets to start at corner opposite Penton, but a true freshman, Christian Holmes, is also in the mix. Thomas Wilson looks like the apparent starter at safety next to Sherrils. Cam Hilton and Greg Taylor provide depth there.
The punting job should be in solid hands with Corey Fatony, who was the best freshman punter in the country last year. There will be a new placekicker, as freshman Tucker McCann replaces Andrew Baggett. McCann has no game experience yet, but his prep numbers make a solid college career look promising. Missouri was pitiful in the return game last year, particularly on kickoffs; eight players took turns there, with none of them averaging more than 20 yards per chance.
Overall Trend: Down. Missouri will get worse before it gets better, and that’s even if Odom proves to be a capable program leader. Odom’s staff is committed to playing freshmen and developing for the long haul, but that typically means a lot of struggle in the early going. There’s simply not enough talent on offense, particularly the offensive line, for the Tigers to be contenders right now.