March 6, 2012
Columbia, Mo. -
Often times, with the start of a new football season comes hyperbolic claims about the beginning of a new era, or talk of a new future. For the University of Missouri, however, that claim is absolutely grounded in reality, as Mizzou embarks on an historic new era in 2012 with its initial season of membership in the Southeastern Conference. Missouri's move to the vaunted league - home of the last six consecutive Bowl Championship Series national champions - will officially begin on July 1, 2012, but the wheels are already well in motion in all aspects of Tiger Athletics to begin the transition.
As it relates to Mizzou Football, Head Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff are working hard behind the scenes to get ready for the move, which encompasses much more than just Xs and Os and adjusting to offensive and defensive schemes in the SEC.
"There's several areas of making the transition, in every phase of our program," said Pinkel. "There's a transition in recruiting and recruiting areas. There's a transition in facilities, we have to make facility improvements. Salaries have got to get comparable to what we're going against in the SEC. On the football side of it, the offense and defense that we're dealing with, that's a big part of it, learning about the league and how the other programs do things, certainly," he added.
"There's a transition in scheduling, and marketing this change," Pinkel said. "We have a plan in place, and we'll make sure we do all the preparation necessary each and every day so that when we get to September we'll be ready to go. Recognizing that we're moving to a great league, I have tremendous respect for the Southeastern Conference, no question about it. It's hard to argue against it that year in and year out, it's the best league around. That being said, I think anytime you go into something new, you have to prove yourself, and you have to earn respect. That's our approach and that's what we're going to do," he said.
Fortunately for Mizzou fans, the Tiger program is in great shape heading into its new conference home. Coming off an exciting eight-win season a year ago - despite featuring a first-time starter at quarterback and a rash of injuries which took a big toll throughout the season - Mizzou looks to continue its upward trajectory in 2012. The Tigers, under Pinkel's direction, have become one of the most consistent winners in the nation. Mizzou is just one of six schools from BCS automatic qualifier leagues who have won a minimum of eight games in each of the past six seasons (2006-11). The other five programs are a who's who of the nation's elite - LSU, Oklahoma, USC, Virginia Tech and West Virginia are the others. And it's more than just consistency, as the Tigers have won at a high level. That's evidenced by the fact that Mizzou's 48 wins in the past five seasons is tied for 9th-most in the nation from 2007-11.
Looking back at the 2011 season, Pinkel expressed admiration for his team's ability to overcome tough breaks and reach eight wins against a schedule that was ranked by the NCAA among the nation's toughest.
"We certainly had our share of adversity and we kept battling through it, when you lose those close games and with all of the injuries - I've never seen a season where our team has been impacted so much by injuries," Pinkel said. "The bottom line is, you have to deal with it, you have a plan for it and you stick to it and stay positive and you work through it. Late in the season, we're sitting there at 4-5 and we had just lost to Baylor in a close game to a real good football team at their place. We had a choice there how we'd finish the season, and I thought we really handled it well," Pinkel said.
Instead of folding, the Tigers banded together and closed the season with four wins for the first time since 1965.
"We got the Texas win and obviously the Texas Tech game was huge and then we finish it off with beating Kansas to get some momentum," Pinkel said. "Then all of a sudden we closed it out the right way and win a bowl game against a real good North Carolina team. So I thought our coaches and players did a tremendous job, I was very, very proud of them for how we battled through. We stayed positive and the leadership of our team stayed steady through it all. Anytime you win your last four games and beat a good team in a bowl game, it's a real positive for your ballclub," he added.
Pinkel believes that finishing the 2011 season so strongly will only pay dividends going forward.
"It's amazing how positive it is when you win that last bowl game, how that just runs right into everything," Pinkel said. "Does it have anything to do with next year? I don't know that it does specifically, but I'll tell you one thing, it sure beats the alternative. It definitely gives a real positive focus to the future, we certainly look at it that way," he said.
When spring practice begins March 6th, Tiger coaches will be taking a look at every position and the competition taking place. There are a lot broad-based goals that Pinkel wants to achieve in the spring.
"With spring football, we'll look at offensive and defensive schemes," Pinkel said. We do that every year and we will begin to determine if there are things we want to adjust in terms of what we do. We look at personnel and getting the right players in the right spots, and the competition everywhere - offense, defense and special teams. One of the bigger things too, is just how the players are showing us by how they practice and perform, how close they're getting to playing at a championship level in the Southeastern Conference. That's what we're constantly looking at," Pinkel said.
As is the case with every spring practice period, there are a number of projected starters sitting out while they continue to recover from off-season surgery.
"We've got several starters out with injuries this spring, the bad news is they're not getting work right now, but the good news I think you really give a lot of younger players a lot of extra work, focused work to improve," Pinkel said. "Ultimately when you get those other guys back, you're better off," he said.
As the roster refreshes itself each year in college football, the Tigers will certainly be looking for some young, promising talent to step to the forefront in 2012. But they'll have the luxury of playing with a solid core of veterans who should make Mizzou a contender in the SEC East this coming season.
In all, 13 starters return to the fold, with six on offense and seven on defense. Included in that total are a couple of starters who sat out the 2011 season due to injuries - senior LT Elvis Fisher and senior LB Will Ebner. Both were awarded medical hardship waivers by the NCAA in the off-season, giving them one more much-welcomed year of eligibility.
The Tiger offense returns six starters from a unit which ranked 12th nationally a year ago in total offense, averaging 475.54 yards per game. With first-year starting QB James Franklin under center, the Tigers became one of the most balanced offenses in the nation, averaging 244.00 yards rushing (9th nationally, 1st in the Big 12 Conference) and 231.54 yards passing (64th nationally, 6th in the Big 12).
There's no question that quarterback is the key cog in making the Tiger spread offensive attack hum smoothly, and junior QB James Franklin emerged as one of the nation's top playmakers a year ago. Franklin finished his initial year as a starter ranked 15th in the nation in total offense with just under 4,000 yards (3,846 for an average of 295.85 per game). He just missed out on the major achievement of becoming a 3,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher, as he finished with 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, while running for 981 yards and adding a team-best 15 touchdowns. His 36 touchdowns accounted for ranks as the 3rd-best season in MU history. Tiger coaches are excited about the potential for continued growth by Franklin, and the fact that there is typically a big step taken in the second year as a starter in the MU system (Brad Smith went from five wins in his first year as a starter, to eight wins in his second year. Chase Daniel improved from eight wins to 12 wins, while Blaine Gabbert went from eight wins to 10 wins).
Backing Franklin up will be redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser, a very talented signal caller who was a prolific prep quarterback, as well as junior Ashton Glaser, who made big improvements a year ago and looks to challenge for playing time in 2012.
"We're expecting James to become a better player," Pinkel said. "He did some great things last season, but I really don't' think he's scratched the surface of how good he can be. Corbin Berkstresser is excited, he's got a great work ethic and he's very talented, and he's itching to show how good of a player he can be. Ashton Glaser is a veteran of the program who's competing in there and is very valuable to our depth. We expect both of them to go out there and compete every day with the intention of winning the job," Pinkel said.
The offensive line is charged with protecting and paving the way for Mizzou's exciting and versatile attack. Three starters from last year's line have matriculated, in RT Dan Hoch, as well as LG Jayson Palmgren and RG Austin Wuebbels, but three more starters are coming back in 2012. If that seems like fuzzy math, it's actually accurate, as junior C Travis Ruth and junior RT Justin Britt are back in the fold, and they're joined by three-year starting LT Elvis Fisher, who is ready to go after sitting out all of 2011 with a knee injury he sustained last August in two-a-days. Fisher had started all 40 games MU played in the 2008-10 seasons.
"Getting Elvis Fisher back is huge, we're moving Justin to right tackle so Elvis can go back to his old spot," Pinkel said. "Justin did a great job last year, getting thrown in there when Elvis went down. It's a great story too, Justin was so excited to have Elvis back that he volunteered to move over to the right side to give Elvis back his old spot, we didn't even have to have a conversation about the possibilities. Now you have Elvis Fisher back, and he's a three-year starter, you've got Mitch Morse who played some last year which was good, Travis Ruth has tons of experience and was a starter last year, Jack Meiners has a lot of experience and Justin Britt has a lot of experience. Getting Elvis back really gives this group a much more veteran look that we wouldn't have without him. With that being said, we're really looking forward to seeing the young players proving themselves, like Chris Freeman, Taylor Chappel, Brad McNulty, Nick Demien, all those guys. We just need them to work hard at improving and trying to get better and see where they end up going. A trio of Tigers, in junior T Mark Hill, sophomore G Anthony Gatti and redshirt freshman Conner McGovern, will sit out spring drills due to either off-season corrective surgery, or injuries. Obviously when we get the other guys back that will make us stronger," Pinkel said.
Tailback was a huge focal point of the Tiger offense in 2011, thanks to several factors: the outstanding play of a veteran offensive line; the dual-threat capabilities of QB James Franklin which created pressure on opposing defenses; and the emergence of TB Henry Josey as one of the nation's most dangerous ball carriers.
Josey began the year number three on the depth chart, but as injuries knocked out both Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore, Josey made the most of his opportunity. In his first start, all he did was rush for 263 yards and 3 touchdowns against Western Illinois. He would follow with 100-yard outings in five of the next six games, and he stood as the Big 12's leading rusher until his season was cut short in game number 10 against Texas, when he was lost for the year with a knee injury. Prior to the injury, Josey amassed 1,168 yards and 9 touchdowns, and averaged a whopping 8.1 yards per carry. His rushing total was the 5th-most in MU single-season history, and also earned him 1st-Team all-conference honors, despite missing the last quarter of the season. Josey will not be ready to participate in the spring, and it is currently unknown whether he'll be back in time for the 2012 campaign.
Whether Josey can go or not in 2012, the tailback position is in good hands, with the return of senior TB Kendial Lawrence, who ran for 566 yards and 5 touchdowns overall in 2011. He began the 2011 season as the starter, but a broken bone suffered in practice before week number two held him back until the middle of the season. Lawrence stepped up when Josey went out, as he had a pair of 100-yard games in MU's four-game winning streak to close the year, including 106 yards and one touchdown against Texas' vaunted defense, and he capped it with a 108-yard, one-touchdown performance in the Independence Bowl against North Carolina. Senior Jared McGriff-Culver (111 yards, 1 TD in 2011) and sophomore Greg White (11 carries, 38 yards in 2011) will look to solidify their standing on the depth this spring, and they'll be joined by sophomore Marcus Murphy, who had to miss the 2011 season due to an off-season shoulder injury, after he ran for 181 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010.
"We all know Henry Josey's story," Pinkel said. "He'll have to have another surgery, sometime around spring football. The bottom line is he'll have three years to get two years of eligibility in. We're going to work with our doctors and trainers and see how things play out. We're prepared for either scenario, and if he can be on the field this year that's great, but there's absolutely no pressure on him to do so, the great news is that he can take as much time as he needs to get ready. Henry has been working very hard and making great progress, so once he gets the last surgery taken care of we'll see where that goes. Whatever works best for him works best for everyone," Pinkel said.
"Kendial Lawrence stepped into the starting role last year and did an outstanding job of continuing the production from the tailback spot that we needed when Henry went out," Pinkel said. "He came along really well last year and really helped our football program. We get Marcus Murphy back from an injury a year ago and he can add a lot to the depth. Jared McGriff-Culver and Greg White also got some experience last year, and we'll be looking for them to grow this year," he said.
On paper, the receivers position group loses the most from a year ago, as starters Michael Egnew, Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson have graduated. Offsetting that is the fact that MU's leading receiver for each of the last two seasons returns, in senior WR T.J. Moe. Moe, who has a combined 146 receptions for 1,694 yards and 10 touchdowns in the past two years, will be looked upon to provide not only the big plays that Tiger fans have become accustomed to recently, but he'll also provide the veteran leadership that a young, but talented group needs. Others expected to lead the way include junior WRs Marcus Lucas (23 receptions for 414 yards and 5 touchdowns) and L'Damian Washington (20-364, 3 TDs), who finished 4th and 5th, respectively, in receiving for Mizzou in 2011.
Among the top candidates to replace Egnew at tight end is junior Eric Waters, who showed his potential last year when he made a 42-yard catch-and-run touchdown in MU's big win at Texas A&M.
Despite the losses here, Pinkel is optimistic about Mizzou's receiving group heading into the spring.
"T.J. Moe is a great player and a great leader for this team, and we've got guys like L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas who both did some great things last year as young players," Pinkel said. "Developing the depth there is going to be critical this spring, as is getting guys out there who can make big plays, the guys who can create things after they catch the ball. I'm excited that we can become a better passing team, even though we lose some outstanding players like Michael Egnew, Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson. We want to run the football, we always have, but we also want to be a great throwing team, so we utilize people around the perimeter because that puts more pressure on the defense. We're all certainly aware of James running the ball more, moreso than we did with Blaine and Chase, maybe not as much as Brad Smith. But certainly James has allowed us to do different things, which has been a real plus in our offense," he said.
On the defensive side of the ball, Mizzou's numbers might not have popped off the page a year ago, but playing in the offensive-centric Big 12 Conference makes it tough to put up gaudy defensive stats. The Tigers ranked 4th in the Big 12 (61st in the NCAA) in total defense, allowing a respectable 380.00 yards per game, while the scoring defense was even better, ranking 3rd in the league and 44th nationally (23.54 ppg). Mizzou's stout defensive front, anchored by tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno, helped the Tiger defense to a number 29 national ranking against the run (127.38 avg.).
While Hamilton and Resonno are gone, as well as a handful of other starters from that unit, six Tigers return who were starters in 2011, and a seventh, in senior LB Will Ebner, returns after being granted a medical hardship. Ebner, who has started 16 games over the last three seasons, was injured in the season opener against Miami (Ohio), and was held out the rest of the year. He's back and ready to unleash his powerful hitting on would-be ball carriers.
Up front, the Tiger defensive line will have a completely new look this spring, as the only returning starter, senior DE Brad Madison, will sit out camp as he continues to recover from off-season shoulder surgery. Even though he'll be missed, the situation is a positive, as it cleaned up an injury which kept Madison at less than 100 percent for the entire 2011 season. Senior DT Sheldon Richardson, who is one of the top candidates to start at tackle after making a pair of starts in 2011, will also be out while he recovers from off-season surgery.
The cupboard isn't bare, however, as Pinkel is looking forward to seeing some young talent show what they can do in the spring environment.
"When we get Brad Madison and Sheldon Richardson back from injury I think our defensive front can be pretty strong," Pinkel said. "We have some big losses in Jacquies Smith, Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton - big guys who were mainstays for a long time. That being said, we have a lot of competition on the line. Jimmy Burge, Marvin Foster will compete inside, and we've moved Matt Hoch to the inside to tackle, and I think it's going to be a great move for him, he's about 285 right now. On the edges, Kony Ealy played a lot last year, and so did Michael Sam, Brayden Burnett, and we'll get Madison back, who was an all-conference type of player in the past. Shane Ray is a real good young player, we saw him on the scout team last year and he did some great things," Pinkel said.
The middle of the Tiger defense looks to be the strength in 2012, as two of three starters from 2011 return, in senior Zaviar Gooden and junior Andrew Wilson. While Luke Lambert, who started all 13 games at strongside linebacker last year, is gone, it's an even trade overall with the return of Ebner, who has 149 career tackles to his credit. Wilson and Gooden were Mizzou's #1 and #3 tacklers in 2011, as Wilson led the team with 98 tackles, and he ended the year by winning defensive MVP honors in the Independence Bowl win over North Carolina. Gooden has started all 26 games over the past two seasons, and was third on the team with 80 stops in 2011 while adding a pair of interceptions to tie for the team lead in that category.
"We've got Will Ebner back from a year out with injury, which is huge," Pinkel said. "We've got back Zaviar Gooden, who's an all-conference player, and Andrew Wilson, who was the MVP in our bowl game. I feel like we're pretty stout there overall. I expect Donovan Bonner and Darvin Ruise to step up their game, they've been around for awhile and we expect them to make more contributions. We've also got some good young players in Clarence Green, Kentrell Brothers and Brandon Durant who we are looking forward to seeing them get in there and compete," he said.
The Tiger secondary was very youthful in 2011, and it showed at times with some inconsistent play, but three of four starters are back for the new season, and that bodes very well for what should be a very talented position group.
Junior CB E.J. Gaines did nothing but impress in 2011 in his first year as a starter. All he did was win 1st-Team All-Big 12 acclaim as he ranked 5th nationally, while setting an MU record with 16 passes broken up. He'll be joined at the other corner by fellow returning starter, senior CB Kip Edwards. Edwards was also a first-time starter in 2011, and he managed to break up three passes, grab one interception and force two fumbles while recording 55 tackles on the year. The third returning secondary starter is senior FS Kenronte Walker, who took over primary duties there for the last part of the season, and ended up 9th on the squad with 44 tackles.
"You've got E.J. Gaines back and he was an all-conference player last year, he did some great things," Pinkel said. "Kip Edwards is back, he's a returning starter with tremendous ability. Robert Steeples played a lot last year, and Randy Ponder is back as our primary nickel guy, so we're pretty solid there overall. Developing the depth with young guys like Xavier Smith and David Johnson is going to be really important," he said.
At safety, the Tigers will undoubtedly miss former standout SS Kenji Jackson, who was a mainstay in the secondary over the past four seasons. But with Walker's return, as well as a talented mix of veterans and newcomers, Pinkel is optimistic about the potential here.
"We've got Tavon Bolden back after some time away so we'll see how he does," Pinkel said. "Kenronte Walker ended last year as a starter and he did some good things, as did Braylon Webb before he got banged up. Matt White, we also expect him to get better, and we've got a couple of talented young players in Ian Simon and Cortland Browning who we're excited to take a look at," he said.
In 2011, the kicking game became a one-man show, as Trey Barrow was the punter all season long, and in his first year as a starter, he earned 2nd-Team All-Big 12 honors for ranking 2nd in the league, and 9th nationally with his punting average of 44.82 (also good for an MU single-season record). Barrow also unexpectedly took over the place-kicking duties for the final six games of the season, when former All-American PK Grant Ressel was lost for the season with a hip injury. Barrow filled in admirably, as he made all 23 of his extra point tries, while making a respectable 7-of-9 field goals.
"We've got Trey Barrow back, and we're looking forward to seeing him develop further," Pinkel said. "He was already playing at a pretty high level a year ago, but there's room for growth still. Andrew Baggett is someone who we want to take a look at for placekicking, so we'll put him out there in the spring and see how he can do. It should be a good competition to watch and I'll be interested in seeing how it sorts itself out," he said.