Five Thoughts as Missouri Football Heads to the Offseason
Missouri’s 28-24, comeback win over Arkansas to close out the season sent the Tigers out of 2016 and into 2017 preparation on a high note.
There’s a lot more optimism and less uncertainty surrounding the team than at this point last year. The young 4-8 Tigers improved as coach Barry Odom’s first year unfolded, and he should return most of those key pieces next year. Here are five things to keep in mind as the Tigers head into the new year:
1. Drew Lock Can Get Better
That sounds kind of crazy, given that Missouri’s true sophomore quarterback leads the SEC with 3,399 passing yards, is second in the league with 23 touchdowns and ranks eighth with a 133.28 passer rating. Lock’s improvement from his freshman year was impressive, but he’s still got a ways to go.
He was two different quarterbacks in 2016. In four wins, he completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 353.5 yards a game, 13 touchdowns, no interceptions and a 183.58 rating. In right losses, he completed half his passes for 248.1 yards a game, 10 touchdowns against 10 picks and a 110.31 rating.
So for two-thirds of the year, he was average. For one-third of the year, he was brilliant.
As the year progressed, he got more accurate with his throws, better with his decisions and more in tune with his receivers. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel has to hope that trend continues.
2. The Backfield Will Be Dynamic
First, you’ve got rising sophomore Damarea Crockett, who averaged 136.2 rush yards a game and 7.2 yards a carry over his final six games this year, on his way to a Missouri freshman record 1,062 yards. He’s legit.
Then you’ve got Ish Witter, who complemented Crockett’s rise with 750 yards of his own and proved to be a more dependable option in the pass game and on blitz pick-up.
Then you’ve got Natereace Strong who, with Crockett suspended and Witter hurt, picked up 52 tough yards and two crucial touchdowns on 17 carries in the comeback against Arkansas.
Missouri may be looking at its deepest backfield since 2013, when Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy toted the rock. Wishful thinking, maybe, for Tigers fans. But not that far out of the realm of possibility.
3. Really, the Whole Offense Should Be Explosive
Missouri ranks 15th in the FBS in total offense, averaging 500.5 yards a game. Last year, the Tigers ranked 125th at 280.9 yards a game.
And guess what? They should get all but one starter back. That means Lock, the stacked backfield, 1,000-yard receiver J’Mon Moore and versatile playmakers Dimetrios Mason and Johnathon Johnson in the receiving corps.
That also means all seven of the offensive linemen — Alec Abeln, Paul Adams, Samson Bailey, Jonah Dubinski, Tyler Howell, Kevin Pendleton and Adam Ploudre — who started this year and ranked 16th in the nation in sacks allowed per game (1.17) and first in tackles for loss allowed per game (3.00).
All from a group that was supposed to be a liability coming into the season.
The only piece Missouri should have to replace is tight end Sean Culkin, who proved an invaluable blocker for the Tigers as well as having a career year catching passes. But there’s good news there as well: rising junior Kendall Blanton is basically a taller Culkin clone, with just as much on the ball blocking and catching.
So, yeah, the future on offense is bright.
4. The Defense Needs to Find Some Answers
Think of the Tigers’ defensive regression as the inverse to the offense’s progression. Last year, Missouri sixth in the FBS in total defense at 302 yards allowed per game. This year, it fell to 117th in the FBS at 479.7 yards allowed per game.
And the Tigers are losing a bunch of pieces from all levels of the defense to boot.
Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta will be gone from the interior of the defensive line…and if draft prognostications are correct, end Charles Harris should depart a year early after two breakout seasons.
Emotional and tackles leaders Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom will be gone from the linebacking corps, and corners Aarion Maxey-Penton and John Gibson — who basically played every snap at their positions over the season’s final four weeks — will be gone as well.
So defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and Odom — who, really, took over a lot of the coordinating and playcalling roles as the season wore on — need to have a keen eye for what the Tigers have left and how to accentuate the strong points while covering up the weak ones.
5. But the Cupboard’s Not Bare
Now, the good news. Missouri’s got some decent pieces around which to build.
On the line, end Marcell Frazier had 6.5 sacks over the final three games and Terry Beckner Jr. comes back from his second knee surgery after an impressive first half of the season.
At linebacker, Eric Beisel and Cale Garrett both showed glimpses of being stalwart run-stoppers and T.J. Warren played a capable nickelback.
The back end is a little more problematic, but there are options there as well. Logan Cheadle and DeMarkus Acy got meaningful game reps at corner, and Cam Hilton, Ronnell Perkins, Anthony Sherrils and Thomas Wilson shared time at the two safety spots. Remember, also, that Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett is eligible to suit up next year.
It might be a challenge seeing how all of these pieces fit together — especially as a high-paced offense makes life difficult on a defense looking for its footing with fast drives and little opportunity for rest — but Odom and Cross won’t be at a loss for choices.
Photos: Nicholas Mebruer | MebruerActionPhotography.com