First, a word about Pat Ivey. We might never find out what happened over the last couple of weeks -- how he went from announcing he was staying a couple of weeks ago to apparently being let go on Thursday. Dr. Ivey was just about everything you would want from a strength coach and, per his title, Athletic Director for Athletic Performance.
Ivey seemed to be good at his job, first of all, and he seemed legitimately interested in developing young men and women, not just developing muscles. He was as much a part of "Mizzou Made" as Gary Pinkel -- he had a major role in the Total Person Program, which allowed us to feel good about the quality of person Mizzou was producing on average -- and he had the admiration of his student athletes. And he just seems like an awesome dude and perfect representative for your program.
He's also a strength coach. There are a lot of good ones. I'd have preferred he stay at Missouri, but until proven otherwise, I'm assuming that, if this was indeed Barry Odom's decision (and it appears that way), there was a reason behind it. Perhaps it was a philosophical difference regarding how football players should be training. Perhaps it had to do with Ivey's role in Missouri's brief boycott back in November. Perhaps they just didn't get along. If you know this isn't going to be a good working relationship, there's no reason to string it along. Odom's going to make plenty of decisions that make me nervous moving forward -- he already has -- but he has the benefit of the doubt until he loses it.
I occasionally have silly thoughts that pop into my head during a given football season; if they seem unreasonable even to me, and if I don't see anybody else espousing them, I just tuck them deep down inside and assume I'm wrong. But they still plant seeds sometimes.
This year's silly thought, which I had from September onward: Missouri's offensive players simply weren't strong enough. The receivers weren't holding blocks. The offensive line couldn't get a push all season, against either good defenses or bad. Between that and the fact that Missouri has been roughed up by injuries for two of the last four years, I started to wonder how good Ivey actually was at being a strength coach.
This is patently unfair. I know. He's won awards. He's clearly good at his job. But if nothing else, I'm using this dumb twinge as a reminder that other opponents were stronger than Missouri this year, and that other strength coaches might be as good or better than Pat Ivey. If Odom finds one of them, then all is fine. It will forever be disappointing to lose someone like Ivey for reasons of athletic culture if nothing else, but in terms of his primary job, he wasn't irreplaceable. He was a #MizzouMade catalyst, and losing him hurts, but there are lots of good ones, and Odom probably already has one in mind.
Anyway. Let's talk about the run game. As we discussed on Thursday, new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel appears to be incredibly adaptable when it comes to establishing a run- or pass-first philosophy. Personnel dictates decision-making. And based on Drew Lock's playing style and the lack of a clear, workhorse back, I assume we'll see more passing than we did last year. (And yes, for now I'm ignoring Friday's news that Maty Mauk has been reinstated. I'm letting that one play out a bit more before I assume that anyone other than Lock is QB next year.) But the run game is still obviously important, and it has to improve dramatically over what it was last year. So what is Heupel inheriting?
Ish Witter (5'10, 190, Jr.) -- 126 carries, 518 yards (4.1), 1 TD; 20 targets, 15 catches, 143 yards (7.2)
Chase Abbington (6'2, 215, Jr.) -- 6 carries, 39 yards (6.5); 4 targets, 1 catch, 5 yards
Morgan Steward (6'0, 210, Sr.) -- 10 carries, 18 yards (1.8); 1 target, 0 catches
Trevon Walters (5'10, 200, So.)
Ryan Williams (6'0, 180, RSFr.)
Marquise Doherty (6'1, 205, RSFr.)
Nate Strong (6'1, 211, So.) -- **** Rivals, **** 247 Composite
Darius Anderson (5'9, 180, Fr.) -- *** Rivals, *** 247 Composite
Heupel clearly encourages the quarterback to dump the ball off to his running back after, perhaps, only a couple of reads. The numbers bear that out pretty clearly. Oklahoma running backs caught 81 passes for 691 yards in 2011, 83 for 789 in 2012, 49 for 361 in 2013, and 52 for 443 in 2014, and Utah State backs had 33 for 298 this year. There's a downward trend there, and I wouldn't expect Mizzou backs to approach 80 catches next year, but Heupel's philosophy could drastically help someone like Ish Witter, who proved as much as a pass catcher as he did as a running back this year.
Witter will play a role, but it's almost impossible to figure out who else will next year. Morgan Steward might or might not ever be healthy enough to go, and Trevon Walters is coming off of a knee injury. Chase Abbington is likely going to be completely in shape (he started from behind in August), and if Heupel is looking for a bigger back, Abbington's probably the first choice. But other reasonably big backs like Marquise Doherty and Nate Strong could also get a shot. And for other players I haven't mentioned yet (Ryan Williams, Darius Anderson ... assuming he remains committed), there will still be clear opportunity.
This is a quality vs. quantity situation. Missouri loses its only proven back in Russell Hansbrough (not to mention its best 2015 big-play guy, Tyler Hunt), but the Tigers could have up to eight guys with reasonably high ceilings and diverse skill sets. The odds of a couple of good backs emerging are pretty high, I would say.
How will given running backs be employed? Again, it evidently depends on what they can do. We saw in recent years that Heupel was willing to experiment with unique formations like the diamond to create both confusion and lead blockers. But whether Missouri has the blockers it requires to pull something like that off is yet to be determined. If Missouri's tight ends (or bigger running backs) can serve as competent H-backs, the Tigers could lean on power. If not, maybe Mizzou's 2016 offense becomes more spread-out, like Heupel's first couple of OU offenses.
Of course, as we learned in 2015, philosophy doesn't matter if you can't block.
Nate Crawford (6'5, 290, Jr.) -- 8 career starts
Alec Abeln (6'3, 290, Jr.) -- 3 career starts
Kevin Pendleton (6'4, 315, So.)
Paul Adams (6'6, 290, So.)
Clay Rhodes (6'5, 280, Jr.)
Malik Cuellar (6'5, 300, Sr.)
Sam Bailey (6'4, 265, So.)
Mike Fairchild (6'5, 295, So.)
AJ Harris (6'4, 285, RSFr.)
Tanner Owen (6'5, 275, RSFr.)
Andy Bauer (6'3, 310, So.)
Tyler Howell (6'8, 305, Jr.) -- *** Rivals, *** 247 Composite
Trystan Castillo (6'4, 280, Fr.) -- *** Rivals, *** 247 Composite
Royce Newman (6'7, 260, Fr.) -- *** Rivals, *** 247 Composite
Trevour Simms (6'3, 317, Fr.) -- *** Rivals, *** 247 Composite
Good news! Missouri's offensive line probably won't be worse in 2016! I'm basing this educated guess on two things:
1. It almost literally can't get worse. Missouri ranked 98th in Adj. Line Yards, 119th in opportunity rate, 126th in power success rate, and 116th in stuff rate this year. That's amazingly awful. And the pass protection (82nd in Adj. Sack Rate) was only marginally better. Technically it can get worse, but from a progression-to-the-mean standpoint, I don't think it will.
2. Experience might not matter! Back before the season began, I looked into returnee data at Study Hall and found that offensive line experience doesn't seem to have the impact we think it does.
If you had asked me before hand, I would have ventured that the strongest correlations would be tied to the quarterback and offensive line. Instead, quarterbacks and receivers had far stronger correlations than RBs or OL, and the correlation between line experience and offensive improvement is actually negative.
Now, again, this is only one year of data, so I'm not going to jump to massive conclusions just yet. I assume with more data, the OL correlation will at least flip to positive (and tiny), so I'm not going to start saying things like "Team A returns 132 career starts up front, which is a giant red flag" or anything. But wow, that was not what I expected.
Missouri returned a robust 97 career starts in 2015, and its line went from solid to horrific. Next year, the Tigers will return just 11 career starts. That's never going to be a good thing, but it might not be bad.
By the way, I would assume that most of the players above end up playing at a weight quite a bit higher than what listed this year. With so many young guys in the fold, Ivey had not yet gotten their weight up to where it will end up. (That, or hey, if we're starving for reasons why Ivey is gone, maybe there's a philosophical difference regarding where Ivey and Odom think these guys should end up. This is the Internet. We can create whatever rumors we want, right?)
There is good athleticism and diversity in this group, with long-and-lean guys like Adams, Rhodes, Bailey, and Owen filling in a bit and potential road-grader types like Pendleton and Harris hopefully getting ready to come into their own. And again, while there are few known quantities, there are options.
You hope that Mizzou can hold onto Trystan Castillo, and if one of the incoming freshmen can challenge for a spot on the two-deep, Mizzou will have up to 13 guys without much separation between them. If talent/strength aren't where they need to be, then "not much separation" is a bad thing. If these guys develop -- and wow, are we going to be paying close attention to whoever Odom and Heupel hire as offensive line coach -- then there might be some ready-made depth here ... and only one senior.
With so few known quantities, this was perhaps a good year for a regime change. Two of the assistants who are staying (Andy Hill and Cornell Ford) are evidently changing units of focus -- Hill from quarterbacks to receivers and Ford from DBs to running backs -- and Heupel will coach quarterbacks. That will bring new blood to the offensive line and tight end positions. New outlooks plus new (and diverse) personnel could produce decent quality. Or not. Just remember: almost nowhere to go but up.