After a long weekend, it's time to wrap up this 2009 walkthrough with the special teams unit. Rarely has a special teams unit lost as much as Mizzou will lose in 2009: they have to replace quite possibly their best ever kicker, punt returner, and kick returner. Yikes. All that considered, maybe I'm not nearly pessimistic enough about this unit. There is at least some potential in the handful of replacements.
Tanner Mills (6'2, 195, Senior)
From rptgwb during the Alamo Bowl pregame: “This just in: Tanner Mills has Josh Hamilton’s bat for a leg. Kid is CRUSHING practice FGs. Maybe life after Wolfert will be OK.”
Like most former goalies, Tanner Mills, a Rock Bridge product and former Columbia College keeper, has a cannon for a leg. He should easily handle kickoffs and PATs and give Mizzou some realistic hope of making any FG under 50 yards or so...but he is replacing the most accurate kicker in Mizzou history. The first time he misses a PAT or a chip-shot field goal will be the first time Mizzou has missed one of those since 2005. Yikes. No pressure.
That said, there is one area on which Mills can improve from Wolfert's standards: pressure kicks. In Mizzou's four losses in 2008, Wolfert was 3-for-8 on FGs. In their ten wins, 17-for-20. He missed two (one blocked) against Oklahoma State in a six-point loss. He missed one at the buzzer (blocked) against Kansas. He missed the potential game-winner against Northwestern. Now...don't mistake this for some sort of "I'm glad he's gone" sentiment--if Wolfert discovered some secret NCAA bylaw that allowed him another twelve years of eligibility because he was a diver or something, I'd do backflips in my living room. (Okay, I can't do backflips. But I'd pump my first.) Just saying that there's one area where Mills can make his presence felt in a good way.
Either way, considering what Mizzou is replacing, Mills seems like a pretty solid candidate. This isn't a "replacing Scotty Knickman with Brian Long and Alexander St. Peter in 1998" situation.
Trey Barrow (6'3, 175, RSFr)
If Mills somehow isn't the starting place-kicker in 2009, chances are Trey Barrow is. A redshirt freshman from Moberly, Barrow's got himself a pretty strong leg and at the very least seems like the likely starting PK in 2010.
Jake Harry (6'1, 190, Senior)
If you asked a Missouri fan in August what their biggest concern was for 2008, a large portion of them would have said punting. Harry was an unproven quantity, and it was cause for concern. Well...worry not. With Harry and a little help from Jeff Wolfert's righty rugby kicks, Mizzou's net punting improved from 31.5 yards in 2007 (#113 in the country) to 37.7 in 2008 (#16). Harry booted his way to a 40.7-yard average with an outstanding 10 of his 26 punts downed inside the opponent's 20. Just an outstanding, consistent effort from Harry in 2008. With an offense that probably punts more in 2009, Harry will be counted on even more.
Grant Ressel (6'1, 180, Sophomore)
Ressel got to punt once in 2008--in the SEMO blowout--and uncorked a lovely 43-yarder. With the rugby punt catching on (seriously, it became a solid weapon for quite a few teams in '08), it is quite possible that the righty (I think) Ressel takes over for Wolfert in the righty-lefty platoon when that sort of kick is deemed necessary.
And I love that punting is a platoon like right field now.
De'Vion Moore (5'9, 195, Sophomore)
Gahn McGaffie (5'11, 190, RSFr)
Robert Steeples (6'1, 190, RSFr)
Kip Edwards (6'1, 185, RSFr)
Munir Prince (5'10, 185, Junior)
Drew Temple (5'10, 190, RSFr)
La'Roderick Thomas (6'0, 195, Junior)
It's always possible that a true freshman like Kendial Lawrence or TJ Moe (or, you know, Sheldon Richardson, ahem) could enter the equation at one of the return positions here, but we'll just focus on the returnees and redshirts.
One thing Mizzou's got in the return game: options. There's simply no way anybody can replace a guy like Jeremy Maclin, not only for the threat that he represented, but also for the number of times opponents decided a chip-shot kick to an up man at the 35 was a better option. Opponents will not be handing Mizzou field position like that again, so whoever wins this job will be given plenty of opportunities to prove himself. And while I won't expect any KR TD's in 2009, I do expect competence among such a big group of candidates.
My early favorites: Moore and McGaffie. For all intents and purposes, Moore is basically a slightly faster Marcus Woods, while McGaffie is a bit of an unknown. I'm not sure how fast McGaffie is, but he is reportedly quite quick, which at the very least makes him a favorite of mine at punt returner.
Moore and McGaffie aside, look out for any one of the handful of super-fast defensive back redshirts--Steeples, Edwards, Prince. I don't know enough about any one of them to project who'd be best at this job, but again...it's nice to have options.
This may also be a case where it's nice having a new Temple in the backfield.
And I would pay money to see Sheldon Richardson as at least an up man.
De'Vion Moore (5'9, 195, Sophomoe)
Gahn McGaffie (5'11, 190, RSFr)
Jared Perry (6'1, 180, Senior)
While I don't see Perry winning the KR job, he could be a reliable candidate at PR.
2008 vs 2009
I almost don't want to compare 2008 to 2009. Wolfert may not have been tremendously clutch, but he was still as good as a Mizzou kicker has ever been. Maclin may have been neutralized for most of 2008 by not getting any opportunities to return kicks, but he was still the most dangerous return man Mizzou has ever had. It's not fair to hold Tanner Mills and guys like Moore and McGaffie to the standard of their predecessors--instead, we should see what skills they do have and how they can be used to help this team. Mills has a cannon, though it's unclear how accurate that cannon is. Meanwhile, there are a lot of speedy, quick candidates at the KR/PR positions, and they could give Mizzou solid field position (as long as they hold onto the ball). Oh yeah, and Jake Harry rules. So we've got THAT going for us.