March 12, 2013
Columbia, Mo. -
Enthusiasm is palpable in the Missouri Tiger football program, as the team begins spring drills in Columbia, Mo. for the 2013 season. That's no real surprise, as every team around the country is undoubtedly excited for the start of a new year. One might be hard-pressed, however, to find a team that is collectively more excited to get going again than Mizzou.
Certainly, that feeling is largely centered around redemption. In 2012, a team that many prognosticators felt could challenge for the Eastern Division title in its new Southeastern Conference home, suffered the school's first losing season (5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC play) since 2004. That broke a streak of seven-consecutive bowl games that Head Coach Gary Pinkel and all Tiger fans had become very accustomed to.
A wave of injuries on the offensive side of the ball - particularly focused on the offensive line and quarterback positions - handcuffed Mizzou's traditionally potent spread offense, and that in turn put added pressure on a defense that showed signs of great play, but which appeared to wear down late in the year. Combine the plethora of injuries with the fact that Mizzou's 2012 schedule was ranked as the toughest in the nation (Sagarin) and that was a classic recipe for a tough year.
Just how impactful were the injuries? The offensive line had only one player start all 12 games, and that was true freshman guard Evan Boehm, who wasn't even expected to be a starter in 2012. Of the 60 potential starts in MU's 12 games by the pre-season starting five linemen, only 23 of those were made by the right guy in the right position. At one point in the season, six of Mizzou's projected top-10 linemen going into the year were out with a variety of injuries.
That lack of continuity no doubt led to an inconsistent year offensively for the Tigers, and the difficulties permeated to the quarterback spot - such a crucial cog in the spread attack. James Franklin, who had nearly 4,000 yards of total offense (2,865 passing, 981 rushing) and 36 total touchdowns in 2011 (21 passing, 15 rushing), could start only eight games in 2012, and he was unable to finish two of those games due to injuries sustained during play. Franklin threw for 10 TDs on the year, but was held without a rushing touchdown, and that drop in production (he ended with 1,684 yards of total offense) made the going tough for every aspect of the season.
The Tiger defense showed early in the season that it was capable of big things, as it helped win a pair of close games against eventual bowl teams in Arizona State and at Central Florida. The defense also played well enough to win games against Vanderbilt (allowing only 19 points in a loss) and at 7th-ranked Florida (allowing only 14 points in a loss), but late-game breakdowns against the Commodores and later in the season against Syracuse (the Orange drove for the game-winning TD in the closing seconds) left both sides of the ball feeling they could have done more.
"The injuries were like nothing I've ever seen, and I've been coaching for a long time," said Pinkel. "But in the end, my job is to solve the problem and find a way to win no matter how many guys are out of the lineup, and it didn't get done. What we'll do is learn from it and take what we can out of the situation to make our program better," he said.
But when spring ball kicks off with the Tigers' first practice on March 12th, the 2012 season officially dies as a memory, and it's on to the potential and promise of the future. There's plenty for Tiger fans to be excited about.
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 competition this spring should be compelling, and the Tiger coaching staff should benefit from seeing a full roster, as most everyone who was injured in 2012 is expected to be ready for full go when camp opens. One of the most-watched Tigers will likely be junior TB Henry Josey, who will return to contact for the first time since injuring his left knee on Nov. 12, 2011 against Texas. Josey was in the midst of a record-breaking year (he ran for 1,168 yards in only 10 games in 2011 before suffering the injury), and his return to the field should be inspirational for everyone to see.
Fourteen position starters return in 2013 for Mizzou, with eight on offense and six on defense. Also back in the mix is sophomore PK Andrew Baggett, who won SEC All-Freshman honors a year ago in his first year on the job. Add Josey's return to the mix, and there's a lot of experience coming back for the Tigers.
Here's a look at the position breakdown heading into spring camp:
As documented earlier, the Tiger offense had a tough year in 2012. After ranking 12th in the NCAA in total offense in 2011 (475.54 yards per game), Mizzou slipped to 96th in the same category in 2012 (356.42 avg.). From 2005-11, MU's offense ranked on average 19th nationally in total offense, including four seasons in which it posted a top-12 ranking, so the showing last season was a stark departure from the norm around the Tiger program.
The good news is that a lot of firepower is back in 2013. Eight starters return from a year ago (that figure could be argued to be nine in reality with Josey's return), including QB James Franklin, four offensive linemen in LT Justin Britt, RG Max Copeland, RT Mitch Morse and LG Evan Boehm, receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas and TE Eric Waters.
"We had become pretty used to having a lot of success offensively, so last year was a new experience," said Pinkel. "But we have a lot of proven guys back and healthy, and with the younger guys pushing them, I expect there to be a lot of improvement," he said.
With Mizzou's spread offense, it all starts with quarterback play, and as noted previously, the going was tough for Tiger signal callers in 2012. James Franklin battled shoulder, knee and head injuries which limited him to only eight games, and his production dropped from 3,746 yards of total offense and 36 combined TDs in 2011 to just 1,684 yards of total offense and 10 combined TDs in 2012. Corbin Berkstresser filled in admirably in relief, and started in wins over Arizona State and Kentucky, but found the going tough overall, along with the rest of his offensive teammates. Berkstresser finished the season with 1,059 passing yards in 10 games (four starts) while throwing for five touchdowns and rushing for three scores.
Franklin is back and healthy and ready to return to form from two years ago, while Berkstresser should look even more comfortable running the controls after his year of seasoning.
But that duo isn't the only talent in the stables, as three freshmen will step on the field this spring looking to show that they can compete for playing time, as well.
Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk headlines that group, and he'll begin spring listed third on the depth chart. Mauk was a Parade All-American who set national passing records for career yards (18,932), touchdown passes (219), completions (1,353) and total offense (22,681) in his prep days in Kenton, Ohio, and his familiarity with the spread attack shouldn't be discounted.
Joining Mauk in camp this spring will be a pair of highly-touted true freshmen signal callers who graduated early from high school to enroll at Mizzou. Trent Hosick was a prolific winner at Kansas City's Staley high school, where he won state championships in football and individually in wrestling. Looking to go toe-to-toe as well with the group is Eddie Printz of Marietta, Ga., who was considered one of the top pro-style quarterback prospects in the nation after throwing for nearly 8,600 yards and 80 touchdowns over the last three seasons at Lassiter High School.
A bright spot for the Tiger offense a year ago was the solid play of Kendial Lawrence, who ran for 1,025 yards despite the offensive line issues. Lawrence has been lost to graduation, but because of the return of junior Henry Josey from a year off, the Tigers get to replace one 1,000-yard rusher with another who was possibly on his way to national acclaim before being injured late in the 2011 season.
But first things first, the tailback depth chart is littered with more than just Josey, who actually begins spring ball listed third on the depth. Junior Marcus Murphy, who made quite a splash in 2012 as one of the nation's most dangerous kick returners (with four scores - three punt returns and one kickoff return), stands atop the depth chart entering spring camp. Murphy only had 46 carries a year ago, as Lawrence got the bulk of the work, but he did average a team-best 5.5 yards per carry, and his career rushing average of 6.4 yards is impressive.
Sophomore Russell Hansbrough enters his first spring camp listed second on the depth chart, and he'll have a chance to expand on the reserve role he played a year ago as a true freshman. Hansbrough showed enough ability early in his first year with the program to merit ditching his redshirt, and he ended the year with 37 carries for 139 yards (3.8 avg.).
Josey begins spring third on the depth chart, and he'll likely be the most-watched individual on the field during camp. If he can regain the form that saw him rush for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011 (averaging an eye-popping 8.1 yards per attempt), the Tiger offense can only go upward.
Program veterans such as junior Greg White (five career carries in 11 games) and sophomore walk-on Tyler Davis (one career game) will look to battle their way up the depth in the spring, as will redshirt freshman Morgan Steward. Steward was having a very impressive fall camp last August before his progress got derailed by an injury. Eventually, it was decided a redshirt was the best course for him, and he's ready to throw his skills in the mix and provide quality depth to a pretty well-stacked position.
Big things are expected from a group of proven receivers who return to the fold in 2013 and have the potential to give Mizzou's passing game as good of quality depth in years.
Six of MU's eight top receivers from a year ago are back, and despite losing the sure-handed T.J. Moe to graduation, things look bright going forward for the receiving corps. Senior Marcus Lucas led the Tigers with 46 receptions and 509 yards a year ago (and added three touchdowns), and he's back looking to man the X-receiver position. He'll battle there with sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, who showed flashes as a true freshman why he was considered by most to be the nation's top recruit in 2012. Green-Beckham took awhile to find his footing, but ended the year on a strong push, and ended with a team-best five receiving TDs, to go with 28 receptions for 395 yards. Sophomore Wesley Leftwich, a Columbia native who is brimming with athleticism, is also eager to show what he can do.
The H-receiver position is headlined by junior Bud Sasser, who emerged to start the final six games of the season at the Z-receiver spot in 2012. Sasser caught 10 passes for 231 yards a year ago, and his per-catch average of 23.1 was best on the team. He's got the speed to get deep on the edge, as evidenced by his 85-yard catch-and-run TD in the fourth quarter against Vanderbilt a year ago. Sasser will be pushed for playing time by junior Jimmie Hunt, after his sophomore season in which he caught 11 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns. Hunt's 18.1 yards per catch average was impressive, and he also returned a kickoff 87 yards for a touchdown at Tennessee to help Mizzou to a thrilling four-overtime win. Of his 12 career receptions coming into the year, four have gone for scores. Redshirt freshman Levi Copelin opens spring camp listed third on the depth chart here.
At the Z-receiver spot, senior L'Damian Washington is tops on the depth, and looking to get a hold on the position after making six starts at the Z-spot and six at the X-spot a year ago. Washington is a proven performer who caught 25 passes for 443 yards and two scores in 2012, and he's got the kind of elusiveness and hands that should translate well to any of the wideout positions. Washington will be pushed for playing time by senior Jaleel Clark, a program veteran who has logged 38 games of experience, and a new talent, junior Darius White, will join the competition. White sat out 2012 after transferring from Texas, where he played in 21 games from 2010-11 after winning Parade All-American honors in high school.
The tight end spot looks to be in capable hands, as senior Eric Waters returns after making seven starts a year ago. Waters caught four passes for 27 yards in 2012, but contributed more than that, as he was used extensively in the run game and in pass protection schemes, where he proved valuable. His primary competition will be provided by redshirt freshman Sean Culkin, who was turning heads left and right last fall and was likely on the fast track to playing in 2012 before a broken finger in training camp put those plans on hold. Culkin ended up taking a redshirt, but he's healthy and ready to compete for playing time in 2013.
It's hard to imagine a single position unit having a more difficult go of it than what Mizzou's offensive line experienced a year ago, with its rash of injuries. As noted previously, only one lineman was healthy enough to start all 12 games, and that was true freshman guard Evan Boehm, who wasn't even expected to be a starter going into the season. Of the projected starting five linemen going into the 2012 season, those five were only able to make 23 starts (out of 60 possible) combined at the position they were supposed to man.
The good news is that's all in the past, and after an off-season of healing, the line looks to be healthy and ready to go in 2013. Mizzou returns four starters here from a year ago, including 48 of the 60 starts on the season (losing only Elvis Fisher and his nine starts and Jack Meiners and his three starts).
Boehm is likely the headliner of the group, as the 2012 true freshman was akin to a gift from above for Tiger coaches, who had hoped to bring him along at a measured pace. But Boehm showed right away he was physically ready to play, and when the injuries started taking their toll, he stepped into a starting role and performed well enough to merit 1st-Team Freshman All-American honors by College Football News. Boehm enters spring ball listed atop the depth chart at left guard, where he'll be challenged primarily by sophomore transfer Mitch Hall. Hall originally attended Ole Miss, but left there following a redshirt in 2011, and after sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, the 6-foot-5, 320-pound athlete is ready to knock heads.
The ever-important left tackle position is in good hands with the return of senior Justin Britt, who has 22 career starts. Britt was manning the right tackle spot primarily in 2012 before he suffered a left knee injury in game nine at Florida and was lost for the remainder of the year. After getting surgery to fix things up, Britt has been cleared to practice this spring, and he'll move back to the left tackle spot where he started all 13 games in 2011 and contributed to the Tiger offense which ranked 12th in the NCAA in total offense. Britt will be pushed by junior Anthony Gatti (12 career games) and sophomore Michael Boddie, who saw two games in reserve duty last season as a redshirt freshman.
The center position is up for grabs, and the lead candidate heading into spring ball is sophomore Brad McNulty, who made five starts there as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Despite his youth and inexperience, McNulty showed potential, and when he started the last three games of the season, Mizzou's offense produced its three highest single-game yardage outputs all year. Program veterans Stephen Carberry and Robert Luce will compete here, as will promising redshirt freshman Jordan Williams, who moves from tackle after redshirting last season due to a knee injury.
The right guard position was a neat story in 2012, as previously unheralded walk-on Max Copeland ended up surfacing as the unexpected starter. A fierce competitor and one of the true characters in all of college football, Copeland was awarded with a scholarship in late August and ended up making starts at the right guard spot in 11-of-12 games. He'll open spring camp holding down the top spot there on the depth chart, but he'll be challenged by sophomore Connor McGovern, who saw action in nine games a year ago (primarily at center), as well as junior Nick Demien (three career games).
At right tackle, junior Mitch Morse returns after a season which saw him float back and forth between center and tackle as injuries juggled the lineup constantly in 2012. Morse made 11 starts a year ago, including seven at center and four at right tackle. He opens spring camp atop the depth chart there, and he'll look to compete with sophomore Taylor Chappell and junior Chris Freeman for the starting job. Chappell was expected to be part of the rotation at right tackle in 2012, and was playing very well early in August training camp until a season-ending knee injury shot those plans out the window. After surgery and rehab, Chappell is ready to go this spring. Freeman is a 6-foot-8, 335-pound man mountain with plenty of potential who looks to provide quality depth on the edge after playing in five games the last two seasons combined.
On paper, the defense looks to be in need of a little more rebuilding than their offensive counterparts, as six starters return for a unit which ranked 58th nationally in total defense in 2012 (390.67 yards per game allowed). The Tigers excelled in getting the ball out last season, as they led the nation with 21 forced fumbles (recovering 16).
All six returning defensive starters are upperclassmen, and the group is headlined by senior CB E.J. Gaines and senior LB Andrew Wilson. Senior DE Michael Sam and junior DE Kony Ealy provide a talented set of bookends on the defensive line, while junior DT Matt Hoch and junior FS Braylon Webb are also back after starting all 12 games a year ago.
"We played very well defensively much of last season, but couldn't maintain that consistently enough," said Pinkel. "We have to have that high level play day in and day out, and that's what we'll be looking for. We've got to have both sides of the ball working in unison and feeding off of each other. We've got some really talented players on defense and some great leadership that we'll need to get things going," he said.
Three starters return in the trenches for the Tiger defensive line, and they're three good ones, in senior DE Michael Sam, junior DE Kony Ealy and junior DT Matt Hoch. Gone is 2012 1st-Team All-SEC DT Sheldon Richardson (who bypassed his final year of eligibility to enter the 2013 NFL Draft, where he's likely to be taken in the first round this April), and while a player of his talent will be hard to replace, line coach Craig Kuligowski still has plenty to work with.
Ealy made 10 starts a year ago and had a breakout season, as he was a disruptive force, with 37 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven pass break ups, five quarterback pressures and a forced fumble. With another year of experience under his belt, big things are expected of the New Madrid, Mo. Native. Sam is a proven performer who has always shown a knack for being around the ball. In 2012, Sam had 4.5 sacks, four quarterback pressures, two forced fumbles and a recovered fumble, which he returned for a touchdown.
Those two stand atop the depth chart on either side of the defensive line, with Ealy backed up by sophomore Shane Ray (16 tackles, three QB pressures in 2012) and junior Markus Golden. Golden played linebacker a year ago after transferring from junior college, but he's bulked up to 255 pounds and is ready to use his quickness and athletic ability to get into the backfield from the end spot.
Sam will have senior Brayden Burnett (37 career games) and redshirt freshman Rickey Hatley pushing him to begin spring.
Hoch started all 12 games a year ago as a first-time starter, and he produced nicely, with 36 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks and three pass break ups. He opens spring looking to compete with redshirt freshman Harold Brantley and redshirt freshman Evan Winston.
Junior Lucas Vincent (25 games played) opens spring as the favorite to claim the starting tackle spot alongside Hoch, but he'll have plenty of competition from senior Marvin Foster (24 career appearances) and junior David Butler.
The linebacker position benefits from the return of senior hard-hitter Andrew Wilson, who has led the Tigers in tackles each of the last two seasons. The other two spots will be filled by first-time starters, as former standouts Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner have graduated, leaving the opportunity for some talented players to step into their shoes.
It all starts with Wilson here, however, and the mild-mannered middle linebacker packs quite a pop. He had a team-best 79 tackles in 2012, and ranked among the nation's leaders for most of last season, with four forced fumbles. He'll look to hold off challengers in walk-on Michael Brennan and highly-touted redshirt freshman Michael Scherer, who had hopes of playing last season but eventually was held out to get healthy from a nagging knee injury.
In the strongside spot is senior Donovan Bonner (39 tackles, four forced fumbles, one interception in 11 games), who started twice in 2012 when injuries shuffled the lineup. Bonner's six career forced fumbles is the most of any returning Tiger. He'll be pushed for playing time by sophomore Clarence Green (one game in 2012) and redshirt freshman Torey Boozer.
At the weakside linebacker spot, junior Darvin Ruise stands on top of the depth chart entering spring camp. Ruise made seven tackles in reserve action in 12 games a year ago, and he's got 24 career appearances in all. Hoping to make a push for playing time here are promising youngsters in sophomore Kentrell Brothers (14 tackles in 11 games in 2012) and talented redshirt freshman Donavin Newsom.
Two starters are back in the Tiger secondary from a year ago, but two additional veterans with starting experience also return, giving Mizzou plenty of experience to go with some promising young talent.
Senior CB E.J. Gaines looks to close his career in big fashion, and the pre-season honors candidate is coming off a strong 2012 season which saw him notch 74 tackles, break up 11 passes, force a pair of fumbles, recover two more and grab one interception. The 2011 1st-Team All-Conference performer will be backed up at one corner spot by junior Xavier Smith (nine games, four tackles in 2012).
At the other corner is senior Randy Ponder, a former walk-on who earned a scholarship after the 2011 season due to his stellar play. Ponder has five career starts (two in 2012) under his belt, and he's proven himself to be a play-maker as well, and he's coming off a 45-tackle season that saw him add two pass break ups and an interception to the ledger. Pushing Ponder for playing time on the depth chart will be sophomore David Johnson and speedy redshirt freshman John Gibson.
The safeties will be anchored by returning starting free safety Braylon Webb. The junior has started 16 games in all, including all 12 a year ago when he registered 64 tackles and recovered a fumble. Webb will be backed up on the depth heading into camp by sophomore Cortland Browning (three games in 2012) and by junior Daniel Easterly (18 career games) as well as redshirt freshman Chaston Ward.
At the strong safety spot, senior Matt White (five career starts in 38 career games, with 23 tackles and two pass break ups in 2012) will open spring atop the depth chart. Sophomore Ian Simon is second on the depth chart, and he'll be looking to build on a nice initial season that saw him make 14 tackles in 10 games in 2012. Simon stood out in the clutch in Mizzou's epic four-overtime win at Tennessee last fall, when he broke a Volunteer pass on fourth down in the fourth overtime to set up MU's game-winning field goal on the Tigers' ensuing possession. Sophomore Ernest Payton (two tackles in three games in 2012) is a talented athlete waiting in the wings, and he begins spring camp listed third at strong safety, as he moves over there from cornerback.
One of the more pleasant developments from the 2012 season was the emergence of PK Andrew Baggett into a dependable presence on special teams. As a redshirt freshman, Baggett beat out returning senior Trey Barrow in the fall for the starting job, and he went on to win SEC All-Freshman Team honors for his play.
Baggett ended the year 14-of-20 on field goals, twice connecting from 46 yards out, and he was 33-of-37 on extra points, while also taking over kickoff duties late in the year. He made the kick of the year at Tennessee, when he calmly drilled a pressure-packed 35-yard field goal in the fourth overtime to give Mizzou a thrilling 51-48 win. A workout warrior, Baggett is a strong-legged athlete who will be counted on even more going forward now that he's proven his abilities.
Also competing with Baggett for kicking duties will be redshirt freshman Nick Coffman and junior Blake Owens.
The punting job, handled very well over the last two years by departed veteran Trey Barrow, will be up for grabs. The lead candidates will be juniors Christian Brinser and Blake Owens. Brinser is the only one on the roster with previous game experience, as he had a 47-yard punt in spot duty in 2011.
Camp gets started on March 12th, and the Tigers will hold 14 practices in preparation for the annual Black & Gold Game, to be held April 20th 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 2013!