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2015 Missouri spring football: Story lines to track, positions to watch

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Mizzou spring football practice begins today! No, really! We made it, everybody!

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri's spring practices get underway today in Columbia, so let's take a look at some of the key story lines we'll be following.

1. The receiving corps

Someone will catch passes. That much we know. While Josh Henson certainly enjoys the power rushing game at times, it's safe to say that Mizzou won't suddenly pull an Army and start running the ball 90 percent of the time. Maty Mauk will throw the football to ... somebody. Who? We're not sure yet. That's what happens when you lose all three of your starting receivers for two consecutive years (Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington, and Marcus Lucas after 2013; Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, and Darius White after 2014) and lose what you thought would be a key backup (Levi Copelin).

The total absence of experience at the position has already become the key story line for Mizzou in 2015, and all eyes will be on the pass catchers this spring.

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1. OT Malik Cuellar, Jr.
2. WR Thomas Richard, rFr.
3. WR Keyon Dilosa, rFr.
4. OT Mike Fairchild, rFr.
5. WR DeSean Blair, rFr.
6. DE Rocel McWilliams, rFr.

The players in this tier are ones that have a chance to carve out backup roles or -- perhaps -- be starters by the time the season starts. As you can see, this is largely based on need. Missouri needs to replace a starting tackle and a whole bunch of help at receiver.

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WR Nate Brown, Missouri: Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from last year, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, all of whom were seniors. The Tigers will turn to a new collection of wideouts this year, led by Brown. The sophomore made just five catches for 45 yards a season ago, but his size/speed combination makes him the safest bet to make an impact this fall.

2. The defensive ends

Because Charles Harris, Marcus Loud, and part-time end Rickey Hatley are back, Mizzou is not as bereft of experience at DE as it is at the receiver position. Still, for the second straight year, the Tigers will be replacing two stud ends and draftees. That can do a number on either depth or experience levels. There's no saving the latter in 2015, but we'll find out plenty about the former in the spring. How much have Harris and Loud developed in this tiny offseason? And who among the redshirt freshmen -- Rocel McWilliams, Walter Brady, Spencer Williams* -- looks the most impressive?

* I will at some point type "Rocel Williams," "Spencer McWilliams," and "Wayne Brady." And I apologize to all three players in advance.

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There wasn't the same rotation of snaps in 2014 as their was in 2013. Instead, Golden and Ray got the overwhelming majority of snaps at end, and Harris and Loud filled in much less frequently. Still, Harris showed his burst more toward the end of the year. When Loud was on the same page as the coaches, he showed talent, but consistency is an issue.

At this point, it may seem silly to doubt what Craig Kuligowski has done with the defensive linemen throughout the last half decade. But, looking from the outside, the task seems taller this spring.

And of course, there's one more question that won't be answered until August: how ready is Terry Beckner Jr.?

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A spring game visit to Missouri last April made the Tigers the team to beat in this recruitment, but they had strong, late competition from Florida State, Auburn and Ohio State. Living within two hours of campus, Beckner's letter of intent was a strong PR win for the Tigers.

Of course, Beckner also puts a charge into Missouri's roster from a talent standpoint. At 6-foot-4 and 298 pounds, he has game-changing abilities on the defensive line and could be an immediate contributor for the Tiger's defense. Although the three-technique role is where he fits best, Beckner is versatile enough to play the five-technique or even the zero-technique if needed, and that versatility also increases his value.

Inside or outside, Connor?

The offensive line returns plenty of experience: Evan Boehm has started for three years, Connor McGovern has started for two years, and seniors Brad McNulty, Mitch Hall, and Taylor Chappell all have a few starts under their respective belts. But the one loss, left tackle Mitch Morse, could be significant. Not only was he pretty good, but his absence makes it uncertain where McGovern might play. He began 2014 as right tackle before moving back inside following Anthony Gatti's injury. And depending on who looks the best in the spring, he could end up at either spot.

We're only talking about one empty position, but with it come a lot of questions. Can a sophomore like Nate Crawford or Clay Rhodes seize control of the LT position? How is Taylor Chappell looking at RT? Who's winning the race between McNulty and Hall? And what about the exciting crop of redshirt freshmen: Andy Bauer, Mike Fairchild, Paul Adams, Sam Bailey, and Kevin Pendleton? At what point does JUCO transfer Malik Cuellar get his feet underneath him?

Depending on who looks good and who doesn't, the staff could go in any number of directions because while there are plenty of options, there is only one guarantee: Boehm at center. There's no question that the line as a whole played better when McGovern moved inside in 2014, but there is flexibility throughout this lineup depending on who thrives in March and April.

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3. G Connor McGovern, Sr.: So, gentle reader, you might be asking yourself right about now, "After that glowing appraisal in the last couple of sentences, why, pray tell, is McGovern ranked above Boehm?" I'll get to that. Just give me a second. I'm fully of the mind that Missouri -- if Josh Henson had his druthers this season and didn't have to play from behind every game -- would be a 60-65 percent run team this year. McGovern is the Tigers' best run blocker. Ergo, he is potentially Missouri's most valuable offensive lineman. He's the strongest player on the line, moves well for his size and looks just as comfortable pulling and getting out into open space as he goes plowing straight forward or turning tackles inside. This is McGovern submarining 325-pound South Carolina tackle Gerald Dixon on Russell Hansbrough's game-winning touchdown last year. If you'll remember, by the time Hansbrough broke the plane, Dixon was about three yards deep in the end zone. That is the kind of push you want in your run game, to say the least. McGovern is the man to give it to you. When Missouri needs some yards, it can go a lot worse than tucking behind McGovern and/or Boehm and trusting them to get it.

Who replaces Braylon?

I haven't been quiet about how excited I am about the young defensive backs on this team. But while corners like Ray Wingo and Logan Cheadle might still have to wait their turn behind stalwarts Kenya Dennis, Aarion Penton, John Gibson, and maybe David Johnson, there is playing time available at safety, where both strong safety Braylon Webb and nickel back Duron Singleton have departed.

We know Ian Simon is likely to hold down one starting job, presumably at free safety, where he started last year. But what about the other two spots, especially the SS position that Webb held down for parts of four seasons? Can Thomas Wilson capitalize on last year's playing time? Will an old hand like Cortland Browning or Chaston Ward take advantage of a late opportunity? Can Anthony Sherrils, a stud athlete, settle at a given position? And of course, what happens when redshirt freshman Tavon Ross, Hudl all-star, gets an opportunity on the field?

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Ian Simon returns as a deep safety; it seems that Thomas Wilson will get first crack at the nickel safety position, which plays closer to the line of scrimmage when Missouri uses five defensive backs. But that still leaves Webb's spot open. Redshirt senior Cortland Browning might start the spring atop the depth chart there, but a lot is expected from redshirt sophomore Anthony Sherrils and redshirt freshman Tavon Ross.

That position could be a revolving door this spring, and it will be interesting to see if Missouri's staff opts for a more experienced player, or if they'll throw a younger player into the mix there.

The most fun part: the surprises

We think we know the story lines we'll be following, but there are inevitably surprise names that play prominent roles in spring practice. (For instance, none of us thought Connor McGovern was going to be much of a threat to see playing time after he failed to even play a role on the disastrous 2012 line. Then in Spring 2013, he suddenly seized a starting role he has yet to relinquish.) Who will it be?

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Who’s ready to emerge?

A handful of second-year players who spent last year on the scout team could take advantage of spring practices and audition for jobs this fall, including a couple of St. Louis redshirt freshmen in cornerback Raymond Wingo (SLUH) and offensive lineman Andy Bauer (De Smet). Wingo could get some looks to replace All-SEC return specialist Marcus Murphy. Linebacker Brandon Lee, safety Tavon Ross and tailback Trevon Walters could push for expanded roles, too. And where does speedy quarterback Marvin Zanders fit into the offense? With heralded freshman QB Drew Lock on his way this summer, could Mizzou find a better use for Zanders at receiver? The Tigers have 15 practices to explore those options and more.

Football is here again!