March 11, 2014
Columbia, Mo. - What a difference a year makes.
Left for the scrap heap by pundits after a disappointing 5-7 debut season in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, the Missouri Tigers turned the national narrative around 180 degrees with a comeback season for the ages in 2013. After receiving nary a single vote in the pre-season top-25 polls, while being predicted to finish sixth in the SEC East Division, Head Coach Gary Pinkel's squad turned in one of the best seasons in Mizzou's history, going 12-2 overall, 7-1 in SEC play, winning the SEC East title along the way, while reaching the SEC Championship Game in only its second year in the league.
After a thrill-a-minute SEC title game loss to Auburn which kept Mizzou out of the BCS National Championship Game, the Tigers closed out their magical season in exciting fashion - with a 41-31 win over former Big 12 rival Oklahoma State in the 2014 AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic.
That win put the cap on an amazing season, and it also secured Pinkel's 102nd win as Mizzou's head coach, making him the winningest coach in school history.
Now that the Tigers are no longer under the radar anymore, just what will they do for an encore in 2014? Questions will begin to be answered when spring practice opens March 11th, leading up to the annual Black & Gold Spring Game on April 19th.
As always, this spring will be all about competition. That's a word you will hear Coach Pinkel repeat early and often in any conversation regarding his team. That's always been the case in his program, whether it was his first year of a rebuilding project or after a 12-win season.
"The foundation of our program is competition," said Pinkel. "It always has been, and it always will be, there are no guaranteed positions on the team. Everyone has to go out there and earn their spots, earn their playing time. If a young guy beats a veteran out, they beat them out, it's for the good of the team. There's a lot of examples over the years, but one I always point to is when Brad Smith won the quarterback job as a redshirt freshman. He beat out a senior who had been a starter for a couple of seasons," he said.
The 2014 Mizzou Tigers will return a solid mix of proven veterans, experienced underclassmen, and talented newcomers who will look to keep the momentum rolling.
Twelve position starters return in 2014 for Mizzou, with five each on offense and defense, in addition to both specialists. It's also important to note that there are 19 Tigers in all with starting experience under their belts (10 on offense, 7 on defense and the 2 specialists), so this squad has a seasoned feel to it entering spring.
Here's a look at the position breakdown heading into spring camp:
Mizzou enjoyed one of the most improved offensive attacks in the nation in 2013, thanks to a bunch of talented skill players and a much more healthy group from the previous season. The Tigers ranked 13th nationally in scoring at 39.1 points per game (after ranking 80th in 2012), and improved to 16th nationally in total offense (490.7 yards per game) a year after ranking just 96th nationally in 2012 (356.4 yards per game).
"I thought our offensive staff did a really good job last season," said Pinkel. "Philosophically we changed in a lot of ways, we threw the ball downfield as much as any team I've ever been around, and I think it was a great change. We were really balanced and that's difficult to defend. We're looking at a lot of different things, little things to tweak and make it better, and we'll see where that goes. We're pleased with what we're doing on offense, but we're always looking for ways to make ourselves better," he said.
A lot of the playmakers from that accomplished group have moved on, including three-year starting QB James Franklin, and four other NFL hopefuls in TB Henry Josey, RT Justin Britt, and receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. There's no question they'll be missed, but the five starters who return bring plenty of high-level play with them, and there are five others in tow who have previous starting experience as well.
"Every year we have some turnover, and that provides opportunities for other players, and that's the way we look at it," said Pinkel.
Gone is three-year starter James Franklin, who when healthy, was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation. The battle to find his replacement will be the most heavily-watched one this spring, and there should be several talented players taking aim.
Mizzou is in the unique position of having lost a three-year starter at quarterback, yet they have two players coming back with at least four games of starting experience. Sophomore Maty Mauk and junior Corbin Berkstresser both filled in for Franklin when he was out for stretches over the past two seasons, and they both helped the Tigers win games. Mauk was especially effective last year in his relief appearances, as he guided MU to a 3-1 mark against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Mauk had an outstanding 11-to-2 TD-to-INT ratio, including a school-record tying five TD tosses in the win at Kentucky.
Mauk will have the inside track to the starting job, but Pinkel reminds everyone that nobody has won anything at this point.
"Maty certainly played well with his opportunities last year, and we're excited about what he did for us, he's got a lot of talent," said Pinkel. "He'll have to win the job still, that's how we do things here, he's got to compete to get the job just like every position. We've got guys like Corbin Berkstresser who has won games previously, and then some very talented young guys in Eddie Printz and Trent Hosick and Marvin Zanders who is a true freshman. I'm excited to see what everyone can bring to the table this spring, we'll have a lot to look at," he said.
The Tigers stayed healthy up front in 2013, losing only two total starts to injury by the starting five in 14 games. The cohesion and consistency developed by the line was unquestionably key to Mizzou's offensive success. The Tigers were among the nation's most balanced attacks a year ago, averaging 252.9 yards per game passing and 237.9 yards per game rushing.
Three stalwarts from that front five return in 2014, including junior all-SEC candidate center Evan Boehm, senior Mitch Morse and junior Connor McGovern. Boehm will be in his third year as a starter, including his second at center, while Morse has started 25-of-26 games the past two seasons and he'll move to left tackle after manning the right tackle spot a year ago. McGovern made 14 starts a year ago at right guard, and he might also get a look at right tackle this spring as coaches determine who will be the best fit at each spot.
Candidates to step in to starting jobs include senior Anthony Gatti at left guard, where he started twice a year ago in place of Max Copeland, and junior Mitch L. Hall, who got good reserve experience a year ago in his first action as a Tiger since transferring from Ole Miss. Junior Brad McNulty also has five starts in 2012 at center and guard, and he could factor into the rotation at a couple of spots going forward.
Others looking to establish themselves in the depth include junior tackle Taylor Chappell, sophomore guard Jordan Williams, redshirt freshmen Clay Rhodes (tackle) and Alec Abeln (center), in addition to true freshman Mike Fairchild, who graduated from high school in time to enroll at Mizzou this semester.
"We played very, very well on the line last year," said Pinkel. "We have three guys back who are very good players, so that's something to build around. We'll take a look at a couple of things during the spring, and that's what it's for, we just have to find the five best guys and build the depth around that lineup," he said.
Mizzou has the reputation of slinging the ball all over the field with its fast-paced spread offense, but its run game had just as much to do with its overall success in 2013 as anything. The Tigers ran for 3,330 yards, and showed an ability to run successfully even when the opposing defense knew it was coming.
Henry Josey was the top gun a year ago, rushing for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns, but after a three-touchdown night in MU's Cotton Bowl win, the senior-to-be declared himself eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft, meaning the second two-time 1,000 rusher in school history will need to be replaced.
For a lot of programs, that might mean dire circumstances, but not at Mizzou. Waiting in the wings looking to step up will be a pair of proven veterans in senior Marcus Murphy and junior Russell Hansbrough. Murphy ran for 601 yards and 9 touchdowns in 2013, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, while Hansbrough totaled 685 yards, 4 touchdowns and averaged 6.0 yards per attempt. Sophomore Morgan Steward will also look to step up his role, after a freshman season that saw him carry 21 times for 84 yards and one score.
"With the loss of Henry Josey, it also creates bigger opportunities for guys like Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy, I know they're really excited about having the chance to get more carries," said Pinkel. "They are good friends with Henry, and they'll miss him, but they're also competitors who want the ball in their hands, so they're both happy about getting that chance," he said.
"We've got a really talented young guy in Morgan Steward who didn't get many chances last year because we were so deep, but now he's got a chance to show what he can do. I really feel good about the depth we have here, and that's crucial because it's a position where you have to have four guys ready to play who can get the job done," Pinkel said.
Much like the tailback position, Mizzou's wideouts lose some big production with the graduation of L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, but the talent pool is still filled with plenty of ability. Junior Dorial Green-Beckham is back for his third year with the team, and if he follows his progression from the previous two years, the sky is the limit. Green-Beckham really came into his own a year ago, as he caught a team-high 59 passes for 883 yards and 12 touchdowns - the 2nd-most receiving TDs in the SEC in 2014.
But he's not the only weapon returning for the Tiger offense. Seniors Bud Sasser (26 catches, 361 yards, 1 TD in 2013) and Jimmie Hunt (22 catches, 253 yards, 1 TD) are back to provide further downfield reinforcements for the Tiger attack, and to provide leadership for a group of youngsters looking to make their mark as well.
Senior Darius White is ready for his chance to win a starting job, a year after he caught 7 passes for 76 yards in reserve action. The former Texas transfer played in all 14 games in 2013, and will be a prime contender to start in 2014. Others who the coaching staff expect to challenge for playing time this spring include junior Wesley Leftwich, sophomore Levi Copelin (3 catches for 61 yards in 14 games in 2013), senior walk-on Gavin Otte and redshirt freshman J'Mon Moore, among others.
"We lost a couple guys who will be playing in the NFL, but certainly we've got a lot of talent coming back," said Pinkel. "Dorial had a great year, Bud Sasser had a heck of a year and Jimmie Hunt did great, he'll have a lot more opportunities. Darius White has had a great off-season, Levi Copelin is a good young player, Wesley Leftwich is a guy who's got a chance to play, Gavin Otte is a really talented walk-on who wants to earn some opportunities, and we've got a young guy who is really talented in J'Mon Moore. We have talent there, it's going to be real important for the experienced guys to get better, but then the young guys really need to mature fast and get ready," he said.
The tight end position has transitioned in the Mizzou offense, going from a pass-catching bigger wide receiver in essense that saw three first-team All-Americans in four years from 2007-10 to a spot that wasn't much of a factor in the passing game the past two seasons.
The tight ends were utilized more often in 2013 as they became a much more important part of the pass protection and run blocking efforts, the duo of Eric Waters and Sean Culkin caught a combined total of 9 passes for 78 yards.
Somewhere in the middle is a balance that Tiger coaches are looking to strike. They'll be looking to do that with Culkin, a sophomore who played in all 14 games a year ago, making one start along the way. With another year of seasoning under his belt, Culkin should be a bigger part of the downfield attack in 2014. He'll be joined by junior Clayton Echard and a promising prospect in redshirt freshman Jason Reese and others who will enter the fray.
"It's a position we'd like to use more this year," said Pinkel. "Sean Culkin is a good young player who is a good athlete and we'll look for him to mature. Clayton Echard is an asset here, and we're definitely excited about Jason Reese and his potential. Hopefully that position will continue to mature, we've got some good athletes here and now we just have to get them ready and get them involved," he said.
Mizzou's defense in 2013 probably didn't get the accolades their offensive counterparts got for the Tigers' 12-2 championship season, but make no mistake, it was an excellent unit which was a big factor in MU's success. In 12 regular-season games, the most points allowed to an opponent was 28, and the final rankings showed Mizzou 34th nationally in scoring defense (23.1 ppg), an improvement from 68th in 2012.
Perhaps most importantly was the ball-hawking aspect of the defense which led to 32 takeaways (20 interceptions, 12 fumbles) that helped MU rank 5th in the nation (1st in the SEC) in turnover margin (+1.10 per game). Mizzou will enter the 2014 season with an active streak of 44 games with a turnover gained, the longest in the nation. Perhaps no single play better signified a microcosm of the Tigers' defensive season than the one that clinched the bowl win. With MU clinging to a 34-31 lead in the final minutes, DE Michael Sam burst around the edge to sack Oklahoma State's Clint Chelf, knocking the ball loose. Fellow DE Shane Ray picked up the ball on the Mizzou 27-yardline and raced unencumbered 73 yards for a score with just :55 seconds left to clinch the win. When plays had to be made, the defense was there to do it.
"We had a really outstanding year defensively overall, I was really pleased with how we competed," said Pinkel. "I really liked our scheme a year ago. Take away the SEC championship game, and we played really outstanding against the run consistently. We were really physical, really good with turnovers and that's one of the most important factors in winning, so we need that to continue," he said.
Like the offense, Mizzou will return five starters from a year ago, including senior tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent, to go along with junior LB Kentrell Brothers, senior safety Braylon Webb and junior safety Ian Simon.
Mizzou is quickly becoming known as a defensive lineman factory, having produced NFL talent to the tune of Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson (all 1st-round draft picks) in recent years. That theme continued in 2013, and then some, as both Michael Sam and Kony Ealy won 1st-Team All-SEC honors, with Sam eventually going on to win unanimous 1st-Team All-American honors and SEC Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
Both are gone, however, as Sam graduated, while Ealy chose to bypass his final year of eligibility in 2014 to enter the NFL Draft, where both are expected to be chosen this May.
Waiting to step into their footsteps is a pair of very talented ends in senior Markus Golden and junior Shane Ray. Even though both played reserve snaps, they were perhaps even more productive than their more well-known counterparts, as Golden led all MU linemen with 55 tackles, including 13 TFLs, 6.5 sacks and 8 QB pressures. Ray was 2nd on the team with 11 QB pressures, and got loose for 9 TFLs and 4.5 sacks, including a jarring hit of Georgia's Aaron Murray that forced a fumble which was scooped up and ran back for a touchdown by Sam which keyed MU's first road win at a top-10 opponent since 1982.
The middle is where the Tigers have the most experience returning, and it starts with seniors Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent. Hoch had 41 tackles, 4 TFLs and 3 sacks in 13 games a year ago, while Vincent had 34 tackles, 5 TFLs and 1.5 sacks of his own in 14 games (9 starts). Sophomores Harold Brantley (30 tackles, 5 TFLs) and Josh Augusta (9 tackles, including 3 TFLs and 2 sacks) also gained valuable playing time a year ago and look to increase their role going forward.
Other contenders for playing time include a group of very talented youngsters. Redshirt freshman Marcus Loud and Charles Harris drew rave reviews a year ago while working on the scout teams, and they'll look to earn snaps at defensive end. Likewise, sophomores Rickey Hatley and Evan Winston will join redshirt freshmen Nate Crawford, DeQuinton Osborne and A.J. Logan in the mix of those working to push for snaps in the fall.
"We've got some pretty big losses to fill, when you lose two 1st-team SEC players, NFL-bound defensive ends, it's challenging but we feel good about who we have," said Pinkel. "Shane Ray is a great player, and Markus Golden also turned into a heck of a player a year ago. I think Markus has a chance to be just as good, if not better, than Michael, if he can continue to push himself and work every day like Michael did to turn himself into the player he became," he said.
"I'm excited about our young talented guys like Marcus Loud and Charles Harris, and a guy like Rickey Hatley could play either inside or outside," he said. "Inside, we've got everybody back, and Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley are proven guys who we feel really good about. We have a lot of stability there, and I'm looking forward to seeing the competition between them and some other really good young players like Josh Augusta, Nate Crawford, DeQuinton Osborne, Evan Winston and A.J. Logan who have a chance to make us even better," Pinkel said.
The middle level of the Tiger defense was very solid in 2013, and junior Kentrell Brothers is back after a standout season that saw him rank fourth on the team with a career-high 70 tackles and 3 interceptions. Brothers played the weakside mostly a year ago, and the plan this spring is to give him a look at the middle linebacker spot that has been vacated by standout Andrew Wilson, who led Mizzou in tackles for the past three seasons.
Brothers leads a group that is pretty young overall, with senior Darvin Ruise (44 tackles in 2013, 1 interception) being the only other upperclassman in the mix for playing time this year. Sophomore Michael Scherer (14 games in 2013, 6 tackles) is in line to challenge for a starting job at the strongside spot, while Ruise is working to win the starting weakside role. Sophomore Donavin Newsom (10 games, 5 tackles in 2013) and junior Clarence Green will also look to factor into the depth, while redshirt freshmen Joey Burkett and Eric Beisel will take to the field this spring hoping to establish themselves as playmakers who can be counted on.
"We lost a couple of really good players at linebacker, but we've got Kentrell Brothers coming back and he did some great things last year, he's got great potential. Michael Scherer is a good young player competing in there, and Darvin Ruise has a lot of experience and has done good things. With all of the younger guys there's talent, so there's going to be a lot of competition which will be good," Pinkel said.
Perhaps no position group was hit hardest by graduation than the cornerbacks, which lose the services of all-SEC E.J. Gaines (37 career starts) and Randy Ponder (19 career starts). While those two will surely be missed, there are some very talented youngsters waiting to step in and make their mark. The good news for Tiger coaches is that they aren't completely wet behind the ears.
Sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson both got extensive snaps in 2013 and while they aren't considered returning starters, they have been battle-tested. Penton started two games in place of Gaines in 2013 when Gaines was lost with a leg injury. Penton did very well in his time on the field, and in 14 games overall, he made 16 tackles and grabbed an interception. Gibson made 14 stops in 12 games, and added an interception and 3 pass break ups of his own. That duo will head into spring ball looking to lock down starting spots, but they'll be pushed by a group which includes juniors David Johnson (12 games, 3 tackles in 2013) and Ernest Payton. Payton was slated to be a significant contributor in 2013, only to see his season ended early due to a knee injury in September. He'll be limited this spring, but will be fully cleared in time for August camp.
They'll be joined by newcomers Kenya Dennis, Anthony Sherrils and Logan Cheadle. Sherrils is a redshirt freshman who is one of the better overall athletes on the team, while Dennis and Cheadle are brand new to Mizzou this semester. Both were members of Mizzou's 2014 recruiting class, and both are enrolled and taking part in spring drills, where they hope to make immediate impressions.
"You talk about rotating guys in to get experience, and it should pay off this year, since we lose both starters from a year ago, real high-quality guys, but we've got John Gibson and Aarion Penton who both really played well as freshmen," said Pinkel. "David Johnson has been around here a long time, Ernest Payton is coming along extremely well, but he probably won't be full go in the spring. And then we're excited to see our new guys get out there and see what they can do," he said.
The last line of defense will benefit by the return of senior all-SEC candidate Braylon Webb. Webb really emerged in 2013 as a playmaker, as evidenced by his career-best numbers which included 89 tackles (2nd-most on the team) and 3 interceptions. As the most experienced player among MU's secondary, he'll be looked to not only step up his play on the field, but to be a leader off of it.
Trying to lock down a starting job at strong safety will be junior Ian Simon, who is counted as a returning starter from 2013 due to his 8 starts when the Tigers employed a nickel package. Simon made 42 tackles a year ago, grabbed one interception and broke up 5 passes in all. Senior Duron Singleton (23 tackles in 12 games in 2013) is a junior college transfer who will challenge for playing time as well, and is someone who came on strong late last season. Junior Cortland Browning (14 games, 4 tackles), sophomore Chaston Ward and redshirt freshman Shaun Rupert will also look to play their way into the rotation.
"Braylon Webb is a really high-level SEC player, the guy is just a heck of a player, with his maturity and leadership, he's got an awful lot going for him," said Pinkel. "Cortland, we expect him to be in the mix and you've got Chaston in there too. Ian Simon had a real good year, and Duron Singleton is a second-year junior college guy who came on late in the season and you typically see a big jump in the second year with the program.
The kicking game is intact from a year ago with the return of starting junior PK Andrew Baggett, senior P Christian Brinser and sophomore snapper Jake Hurrell. While the expectations are for that trio to continue to improve, their return is a comfort for Tiger coaches and the all-important special teams.
Baggett finished the 2013 season 18-of-25 in field goals, and 66-of-69 in extra points, and his 120 points scored were the 4th-most in Mizzou single-season history. Interestingly, five of his seven misses on the year were from 39 yards or less, so that's an area where he'll look to improve. His leg strength has never been in question, as he went 6-of-8 from 40 or out, and he finished the year strong by making five of his last six kicks, including a key 46-yarder midway through the 4th quarter of the Cotton Bowl win which broke a tie at the time. He also was a huge weapon in the field position battle, with his 62 touchbacks ranking as 2nd-most in the nation. Brinser was solid in his first year as a starter, averaging 41.0 yards per punt, while placing 26 of them inside the opponents' 20-yardline.
Hurrell took over the long snapping duties as a redshirt freshman, and was superb, meaning that spot should be worry-free for Tiger coaches for a long time.
"I thought Andrew Baggett finished the year really strong, so we expect him to carry that forward this year," Pinkel said. "He's been our guy there for two years now, so he's a veteran and we feel like he can be one of the best in the SEC, which means he can be one of the best in the country," he said.
"Christian Brinser did some good things in his first year as a starter," said Pinkel. "Now that he's got the game experience, I think you'll see him take a step up, and that's what we need to happen certainly," he said.
Camp gets started on March 11th, and the Tigers will hold 14 practices in preparation for the annual Black & Gold Game, to be held April 19th at 1 p.m. at Faurot Field. Be sure to stay tuned to www.mutigers.com for updates and further coverage of Mizzou Football spring camp 2014!
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