Mizzou Season Preview: MizzouMade Barry Odom ushers in a new era

Barry-Odom-intro

It was a sad end to the Gary Pinkel era. After a quick spike after announcing his resignation amid a battle with non-Hodgskins Lymphoma, at the end of “the Week,” Missouri played its best game maybe all season, in beating BYU 20-16 at Arrowhead; needing just one win in its final two games, the Missouri offense laid an egg, and scored just 11 points in the final two games as Missouri failed to send Pinkel out in style with a bowl game (for the second time in four years).

It was a rough fall for Gary Pinkel and the two-time defending SEC East champs.

Last in the SEC in scoring (15.2 per game), total offense (296.7 – rushing (119.9) and first downs per game (16.3), it was painful watching them play last year; and I felt bad for the defense – No. 9 nationally last season – who made stop after stop after being on the field all game, but had no help from that offense.

Regardless, Missouri still went 5-7 and COULD have made a bowl. IF that is your “bad” year, then things have been going pretty well.

Before Pinkel, though? Not so much.

Pinkel, who will some day have a statue, won 119 wins. The 25 seasons before him, Missouri won just 115 games. That’s 4.6 wins per year.

Now, it’s one of the Missouri’s GOAT’s former players, Barry Odom – the youngest coach in the SEC – taking over the reigns, ushering Missouri into a new era.

A new era, that is cloudy at best, for some. But, filled with optimism for the True Son Odom, and the 2016 Missouri Tigers.

Offensively, Missouri has to get A LOT better. It’s cliché to say it can’t get worse, but like Buddy Bell once said, “don’t ever say it can’t get worse, because it can.” Last year, if Missouri could have found a way to score 20 points, they would have won a lot of games. With as good as the defense SHOULD be again this year, the statement is still true.

It has to start with Drew Lock, the sophomore quarterback who had his bumps in the road last year, tossing 4 TD compared to 7 INT. I suppose it’s possible for an Army All-American, and Elite 11 QB and a Top 3 QB in his class to be a bust, but, with his credentials, one has to expect him to improve. He was not put into an ideal situation last year with a poor WR group, a lack of consistent running game and a bad offensive line. He also has a REAL QB coach now in offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the former Oklahoma QB. The naysayers will say, so what? Is the line better? Are the receivers better?

Let’s take a look:

Running Backs

It remains to be seen who will get the bulk of snaps or touches, but Oklahoma grad transfer Alex Ross is listed as the starter and said to have been heads and shoulder above everyone else at camp. Ish Witter is the only returnee with touches and JUCO transfer Nate Strong, albeit currently listed as third on the depth chart, was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school three years ago. All three will be integral to Mizzou’s success this year. Witter improved late last season — he averaged 3.8 yards per carry through eight games and a much-better 4.8 in the last four games. He also caught that long pass against BYU, proving what many have suspected: that he could become one heck of a third-down weapon and we saw further proof of this in the spring game and I expect we’ll see that throughout the season. The new up-tempo offense and plan for more downhill running, Witter’s ability to hit the hole quick when running straight ahead, he could be much improved and a huge improvement for the running game. We saw last year that a single injury (Russell Hansbrough’s) can wreck a given unit, but the depth at running back is far more impressive now when you add in the transfers, plus 4-star freshman Damarea Crockett. Ross has carried 123 times for 786 yards (6.4) with five touchdowns in his career. That’s a great average, and would be a huge boost to the running game.

You don’t have to have one guy, here. They just have to be good as a group.

Wide Receiver

Lock inherited a receiving corps with no continuity whatsoever. The starters were two sophomores and a senior who had been a career reserve. The results were predictable. Nine players were targeted at least 15 times in 2015, and the only one to average better than an awful 5.7 yards per target was Witter…a running back.

Of the three starters, Wesley Leftwich, who was better suited for the slot, lined up on the outside and hinted at explosiveness, averaging 13 yards per catch, but with a wretched 41.5% catch rate and was overthrown by Lock on seam routes several times. This position has to get MUCH better. Moving there will likely be Nate Brown, who lined up at several spots, but was in the slot in 3-receiver sets, despite his size, making him better suited for the outside. However, he is now injured with a high ankle sprain and could miss as much as half the season.

The third starter, J’Mon Moore, flashed upside last year, then would disappear for a couple of games at a time. He had 11 catches in the first three games, then only 18 the rest of the year. He made difficult catches and dropped easy ones – story of the Missouri season. Regardless, he’s a year more experienced. That probably means at least a little bit of improvement.

Emmanuel Hall, a sophomore, is replacing Brown in the starting lineup. He, like many others last year, showed promise, but was way too inconsistent. I liked him a lot, last year, though. In the slot, Missouri has three players listed as the starter – redshirt freshman Jonathan Johnson, Alabama transfer Chris Black and Ray Wingo, the only one of the group who saw the field last year. Wingo is one of the fastest players on the team, but I don’t expect him to have a lot of playing time. Johnson is best suited for the slot, but Black will also play a lot.

Others listed on the Opening Week depth chart are freshman Dimetrios Mason and JUCO transfer Dominic Collins. Some other guys will contribute, too, as Missouri has a ton of guys at this position. However, they need someone to step and be the guy.

We’ll add the tight ends to this list, as they are important aspects of the Mizzou passing game, but were used the least in the Gary Pinkel era last season. Both the top two guys are back in Sean Culkin and Jason Reese. Culkin, who has been hyped since he was a freshman, has done next to nothing in his career. He had a long TD at Arkansas St, then lost his job to Reese, who caught six passes in Lock’s first start, then caught five in the final seven games. Blue Springs’ Kendall Blanton will also see playing time.

Offensive Line

There’s no question that the offensive line was the worst unit on Missouri’s 2015 football team. And that’s a unit with TWO (C Evan Boehm, Connor McGregor) drafted to the NFL, so that’s really saying something about the returnees.

LT – McGovern was a great guard and a decent tackle. It’s a shame he was asked to play away from his strength, especially for an offense that needed every strength it could get. Regardless, if Tyler Howell, a mammoth 335-pounder, lives up to hype (and girth), he should come pretty close.

LG – There is not a for sure upgrade here. Taylor Chappell was serviceable at times. Kevin Pendleton was here last year and couldn’t get much PT – so how good will he be this year as the starter? His backup is a true freshman from Webb City – Trystan Castillo.

C – The bar for replacing Boehm is maybe a bit lower than it would have been a year ago, but it’s still pretty high. In his spot is little known Samson Bailey, as Alec Abeln had to slide over to guard with the retirement of Nate Crawford. His backups? JAGS no one has heard of.

RG – Alec Abeln came out of nowhere to win the starting job at the start of the year at left guard, but struggled and got demoted. Nate Crawford was decent at times but got hurt, got hurt again in the spring, and retired. Abeln has to good this year. His backups are BUMS.

RT – Paul Adams could still develop into a solid three-year starter. But, as the Show-ME state, he needs to go out and show us. His backup is another true frosh, mammoth Tre’Vour Simms – a 335-pound MONSTER from East St. Louis.

With only eight scholarship OL, it’s hard to say that the biggest weakness has improved, but it hasn’t gotten any worse.

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Missouri’s defense was legit, and the best in the SEC, last year. They returned eight starters, got another one back who missed all of 2015, then lost him plus another returner to dismissal. That said, they’re still going to be really good. They’re going to be tested right off the bat with the Big 12-wideopen offense at West Virginia.

Defensive Line

Missouri was rated, along with conference foe Alabama, as the top defensive line’s in the nation. With the loss of Brantley and Brady, it is still EASILY has a Top 10 unit.

At tackle, 360-pound MAMMOTH of a man Josh Augusta is surprisingly not in the starting lineup, likely due to a endurance, but he will play a lot. As big as he is, he’s versatile for his size, and if/when he’s tired, there’s plenty of depth. Starting at one tackle is “Big Rick” Hatley, who had arguably the best camp of any defender, minus a WALK-ON. The No. 1 defensive lineman in the nation in last year’s recruiting class, Terry Beckner, Jr flashed his talent last year before going down late in the year with a serious ACL and MCL injury, but he’s also back and healthy to give Missouri a 3-headed monster at tackle. Starting ahead of Augusta is big AJ Logan, the hometown kid. Add in Josh Moore, who played last year as a true frosh, and Missouri is 5-deep at tackle.

At end, despite the loss of Walter Brady, who had 12.5 tackles for loss as a Freshman All-American last year, is gone. But, Missouri is more equipped than maybe any other team to handle it. With his departure it was expected that with another year of development from Marcel Frazier, he would assume the role. Or Nate Howard. Instead, a little-known walk on from Illinois Jordan Harold, is starting opposite stud Charles Harris. Whoever it is that lines up opposite of him, expect good things, as they won’t be seeing any double teams. We’ll also see Spencer Williams. Heralded freshman Tre Williams is redshirting.

Missouri will also run some more 3-man fronts this year than we’re used to seeing with Augusta in the middle and Beckner, Jr and Hatley up front with him. Good luck blocking this group.

Linebackers

With Kentrell Brothers gone, athletic strongside backer Donavin Newsom will be asked to do more. In the middle, three-year starter Michael Scherer will be the anchor, and look to go over 100 tackles for the third straight year. At weakside backer, Joey Burkett beatout Brandon Lee and Terez Hall.

This group can play.

Secondary

CB – Kenya Dennis was just fine last year. He didn’t have quite the year that he was probably hoping, and he seemed to see some of his playing time diminished late in the year, but he was fine. The question is whether the combination of John Gibson and Logan Cheadle and spring game starter T.J. Warren can match or exceed his quality. At the other starter is Aarion Penton, another returnee and a lockdown coverage corner. He will be backed up by two true frosh – Christian Holmes and DeMarkys Acy.

FS – Ian Simon was your typical, underappreciated leader in the back. Mizzou prevented big plays as well as almost any team in the country (Patrick Towles’ random, unexplainable downfield success was the exception, not the rule), and I think Simon had a ton to do with that. Thomas Wilson and defensive back turned WR Cam Hilton is back in the secondary and has significant upside, but they’ll probably make some mistakes this year that Simon did not.

SS – We’re talking about him maybe going pro after this year. Anthony Sherrils is that good. And getting better.

Special Teams

Gibson was woefully unsuccessful in 2015, averaging just 14.8 yards per kick return; Mizzou’s kick returns as a whole were amazingly bad — the Tigers not only had the worst kick return average in the country (15.08), but they were more than a yard and a half behind the second-worst team (Buffalo, 16.60).

This wasn’t just Gibson — he had no blocking whatsoever. Mizzou’s youth issues in the receiving corps seemed to bleed into special teams a bit, and there were plenty of youth-related breakdowns in both blocking and coverage. If the blocking doesn’t improve, Mizzou could have the second coming of Jeremy Maclin returning kicks, and it wouldn’t matter much.

Still, there’s obviously room for upgrade, and in Ross, Mizzou has upgraded. In two years of returning kicks at Oklahoma, Ross averaged 25.7 yards per return. That’s borderline top-30 in a given year. And, then there’s another transfer in Chris Black, who could also see time returning kicks or punts. Johnson will join him in getting chances returning punts, and newcomers Crockett and safety Greg Taylor will return kicks, too.

Tanner McCann was the No. 1 kicker coming out of high school and the hype of his big leg was evident in the spring when he was clearing the end zone on kickoffs. It will be disappointing any time he ever boots anything but a touchback. But as well-touted as he is, in the place-kicking role you never know what you’ve got until you see guys making kicks in actual games. The once-battered Andrew Baggett made a ton of them and was very proven by the end of his career.

Punter Corey Fatony was one of the best in the nation last year as a freshman. God knows he got a lot of work. Hopefully he doesn’t see as much work this year. If he does, however, he’ll do well.

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Prediction: Missouri wins at least six games, and goes to a bowl. After last year, as a Missouri fan, that’s all you can ask for. 7-5 (4-4 SEC).

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