Before there were battles to replace Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood, Stryker Sulak, and William Moore, there were battles to replace Corby Jones, Devin West, Craig Heimburger, Justin Wyatt, Caldrinoff Easter and Harold Piersey. Mizzou's 14 losing years had come to an end with a punishing backfield, mean defense, and meaner offensive line. The years of seemingly improved recruiting were going to be tested by the departure of so many key reasons for Missouri's breakthrough, and while optimism was at an all-time high, clearly there was still something to be proven on the field.
Missouri entered 1999 spring practices with holes everywhere, and optimism alone wasn't going to plug those holes. Gone was 3.5-year starter Corby Jones, the face of Missouri's breakthrough, the fearless leader. In his place were four potential starters with unique skill sets--sophomore Jim Dougherty (smart, efficient leader), redshirt freshman Kirk Farmer (raw with tons of upside), junior Ryan Douglass (hard-nosed Corby clone), and sophomore Kurt Propst (who was emerging to the top of the class the previous spring before absolutely destroying his leg with a freak injury).
Gone was workhorse Devin West, one of the most intriguing athletes Missouri had seen. Battling to replace him were rugged senior DeVaughn Black, smooth sophomore Zain Gilmore, and bouncy little junior Ricardo Rhodes.
Gone were four starters on the offensive line. In their place were a very highly-touted group of youngsters--huge sophomores Justin Bland, who had spurned Nebraska to stay close to home, and Aaron Crittendon at tackle, sophomores Jeff Hellerstedt, Adrian Cole and Mike Hayes at guard. The line still had lots of potential with the young talent and soon-to-be All-American Rob Riti at center.
On defense, things looked encouraging. One of the most opportunistic defensive units in the country in 1998, the defense returned most of its weapons in the front seven--DE Justin Godzilla Smith, the most impressive freshman DE in the country in 1998, and senior DTs Jeff Marriott, Steve Erickson and Pat Mingucci, made up one of the best defensive lines in the conference, and stalwart LB Barry Odom had a nice counterpart in fast, long-armed sophomore Jamonte Robinson. Odom would be backed up by one of the more highly-touted recruits of the Larry Smith era, Texan Michael Clay. The secondary had to replace three starters, but optimism was abound with Julian Jones inheriting one job and impressive youngsters Clarence Jones and Antoine Duncan looking good in the others. If the offense could even approximate the 1998 unit's success, the defense would be able to pick up some of the slack, and the 1999 Missouri squad might not even miss a beat when all was said and done.
Seriously, this was what we were saying in the spring of 1999. And that's what others were saying too:
There once was a day when a handful of openings at a particular position would have been devastating to the Tigers. Now it’s just a matter of finding the right person for the task.
At tailback, DeVaughn Black appears to be the most consistent of the hopefuls, providing steady gains. But he can split time with Zain Gilmore, who has the most potential but has yet to break loose. Late bloomer Brady Wilkins, who was injured earlier in the spring, also showed some stuff in the spring game and Ricardo Rhodes has some explosiveness in his game.
But Smith said the spring game is only one segment of the test.
"It’s one-third of their grade. The other two scrimmages are just as important even though this one might be a little bigger," he said. "I don’t think anyone can win a starting job in the spring. He may put himself in a good position, but I don’t think he can win a starting job."
Hayes is one lineman who boosted his stock in the spring. He did it by being a part of the line.
"We’re still young, but we’ve got the talent," he said. "We’re trying to pull together and mesh into a unit like last year. We all know each other and came in at the same time so it’s been good this spring."
So it could work out nicely for MU. It’s just not something they want to do every spring.
After some up-and-down position battles, the spring game itself was a nice time for certain players to shine. Godzilla had four unassisted tackles and two sacks. Newbie receiver Travis "T-Money" Garvin had 7 catches. DeVaughn Black had 75 yards on 17 carries. None of the quarterbacks particularly distinguished themselves--Farmer, Dougherty and Douglass all completed a hair under 50% of their passes, while Farmer and Dougherty each had short touchdown passes--but the running game looked pretty good, the defense looked pretty good, Larry Smith spoke positively of offensive balance, and it appeared there was life after Corby and Devin.
There was actually not life after Corby and Devin. When the 1999 season actually started in September, cracks began to show. First, it was on the defensive side of the ball. Despite super-human numbers being put up by DeVaughn Black (57 carries, 348 yards, 2 TDs), excitement from the first two games--wins over UAB and Western Michigan--was a bit tempered from the fact that the Tigers had given up 62 points and 730 yards in those victories. Both opponents had strong mid-major offenses, but WMU's 320 passing yards were of particular concern.
However, it turned out the defense was the least of Missouri's problems, and that became rather evident about two minutes into the following game against Nebraska.
We know how this all unfolded, right? Ben Davidson launches two punt snaps into orbit, and Nebraska quickly goes up 16-0 in Q1 on the way to an easy 40-10 win. After a bounceback win at Memphis (seriously, we need to play constant home-and-home series with Memphis just so I have a reason to visit there) and an exhilaratingly disappointing OT loss at Colorado, Kirk Farmer--who was looking incrementally better each game--broke his leg against Iowa State, Missouri scored 14 points or less in four of their five remaining games, Larry Smith panicked and tore Justin Gage's redshirt off in Game #9 against OU, Mizzou got outscored 154-14 over their last three games, Smith's wife yelled at the players during the particularly humiliating 66-0 loss to KSU, and in three months, Missouri's football program had gone from "rising power" to nothingness. It would be four long years before Missouri's next bowl game.
What Was the Point of This?
So what was the point of this exercise? To piss on people's excitement parade? Not really. Consider it more of a lesson learned in trying to cut through the predictable spring optimism and look for specific positive and negative signs emerging from this Saturday's Black & Gold game, essentially a glorified (and not even that glorified) practice.
There's potentially more legitimate reason to be excited about the bounceback potential in the 2009 squad than at this point in the 1999 campaign. Needless to say, none of the 1999 quarterback candidates were 5-star recruits like the current #1 QB. None of the RBs were as highly-touted (or as proven) as Derrick Washington. While there was intriguing quickness among the '99 WR corps--Kent Layman, T-Money, John Dausman, Eric Spencer, Cam "Look Out for the Video Tower!" Ankele--it was an undersized, not-particularly-talented unit. If we were to compare the '99 and '09 teams, unit by unit, the '99 team would maybe only compete on the D-line and maybe at LB. Otherwise this 2009 squad is already more proven in just about every way. But we can still use the '99 debacle as a warning sign to guard from letting emotions get too extreme one way or another this week and into August.