And the unit-by-unit previews draw to a close...
2008 Unit Ranking: #16 Net Punting, #32 Punt Returns, #78 Kickoff Returns
K Tanner Mills (6'2, 200, Sr.)
P Jake Harry (6'1, 195, Sr.)
KR Jasper Simmons (6'1, 205, Jr.)
PR T.J. Moe (6'0, 190, Fr.)
Missouri's 2008 special teams unit set a pretty high standard, did it not? Mizzou's best kick/punt returner, their most accurate place-kicker, and the 16th-best net punting unit in the country is a pretty damn stout unit. Clearly things are much more up in the air for 2009, and clearly there will probably be at least a slight drop-off here, but how much of one?
1. So who the hell is going to return kicks? Sounds like that answer is starting to round into shape. Based on recent practice reports, Jasper Simmons will be manning the kick return duties, while Carl Gettis will return punts...for now. I love The Carl Gettis Treatment as much as anybody, but in the smallest of small sample sizes, Gettis struggled handling kicks during the spring game, and that got me a little spooked. He'll probably be just fine, but it does sound like T.J. Moe will be getting a look here as he gets healthier, and since a) he was who I initially predicted to win the job this summer, and b) I haven't personally seen him muff any kicks (I haven't personally seen him do a damn thing, but that's besides the point), I'd be okay with that.
I must say, I'm starting to become very curious with what we're going to see from Jasper Simmons this fall. People raved about his athleticism this summer, and his play in August has confirmed the growing perception. He has apparently looked good in special teams, and he has apparently gained ground on both Hardy Ricks and Jarrell Harrison for a starting safety spot.
In the end, this unit is probably not going to duplicate both the production and the threat that Jeremy Maclin provided. Mizzou was only 78th in kickoff returns last year, but I'm willing to bet that their average starting field position was much better than 78th considering the myriad of ways that teams avoided kicking to Maclin. His killer returns bookended the season (he had a huge, momentum-turning kickoff return against Illinois in the opener and a desperately-needed punt return against Northwestern in the finale), and while we can't expect Simmons, Gettis/Moe, or whoever to replicate that, they can still make sure this unit isn't a complete weakness. We've heard a lot recently about how this Mizzou team is the fastest Gary Pinkel has had in Columbia--if that's really the case, then there should certainly be some pretty decent options in the return game...as long as they can catch and hold onto the ball, anyway.
2. Is Jake Harry looking better than he did in the spring? Seems like it. He's actually been out-kicked in both scrimmages by sophomore walk-on Matt Grabner, but obviously that doesn't tell us anything about their respective hang-time. Hang-time was a key component to Harry's success last year, as he averaged a respectable 40.7-yard average but a very good 37.7 net average. Of his 26 punts, 5 were fair-caught and 10 were downed inside the 20, meaning over half of his kicks resulted in no return, which is awesome.
Mizzou implemented the awesome righty-lefty rugby-kicking platoon in 2008, with Jeff Wolfert punting seven times when Mizzou was on or near the left hash-mark, and it's at least possible that we'll see the same thing in 2009, assuming a) Matt Grabner is deemed ready for the spotlight, and b) Grabner's actually a righty (I have no idea). Punting has taken on an extra layer of strategery over the last year or two, with the rugby kick being eased in more and more, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the same thing continuing this year.
3. Tanner Mills is going to be the place-kicker...right? Well...maybe not. General Mills is definitely going to be the kickoff specialist, and word has it that he's going to be as good a kickoffs guy as Mizzou has ever had, but it's starting to look like maybe sophomore Grant Ressel has overtaken him on FGs and PATs. Ressel saw the field once in 2008, uncorking a lovely, high, fair-caught 43-yard punt against SEMO, and as I mentioned with Gettis above, I'm not going to pretend that I'm not swayed by tiny sample sizes. I'm relatively confident in Ressel, but it sounds like overall neither Mills, nor Ressel, nor Trey Barrow are tremendously reliable right now from outside of about 35-40 yards. All three were outstanding in the first scrimmage, and all three were downright bad in the second. It's always different when the national TV cameras are on, however, so we'll see how Ressel, if he's deemed The Man, responds in The Dome.
In all, Mizzou does seem to have at least a few special teams weapons at their disposal. Even if they're not as dangerous in the return game, and even if they are no longer almost 100% automatic on FGs of less than 40-45 yards, they could still win the special teams battle if punting and kickoffs are stellar and they're at least competent in returns and place-kicking. Field position is such a huge thing, bigger than we even think it is, and if Mizzou is averaging 37-39 net yards on a punt and kicking touchbacks half the time or better, while at least getting kick returns out to the 25-30 and not muffing punt returns, special teams will be alright. Not great, but alright. In the North, only Nebraska has a rock-solid special teams unit, so Mizzou will still be able to compete here.
2009 Mizzou Football Preview Series
- Part One: Blaine Gabbert and the Four-Year Precedent
- Part Two: Putting 2008 to Bed
- Part Three: My Guys
- Part Four: Offense - Beyond the Box Score
- Part Five: Defense - Beyond the Box Score
- Part Six: Quarterbacks
- Part Seven: Running Backs
- Part Eight: Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
- Part Nine: Offensive Line
- Part Ten: Defensive Line
- Part Eleven: Linebackers
- Part Twelve: The Secondary