One of my favorite sports stat books is The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, by Chris Anderson and David Sally. I’ve had the opportunity to chad with Anderson a few times about different aspects of his soccer knowledge (he’s now the managing director of Coventry City FC), and a few of their ideas have stuck with me for a while now.
One of them is the idea of improving from the bottom up. Anderson and Sally dedicate part of their book to the idea that at most levels of soccer, winning isn’t about how much star power power you have, or how strong your strengths are. It can also be about improving your weaknesses, about building from the ground up. The premise is simply that you are only as good as your worst player.
In theory, this could work the same for football. Granted, good players can cover for bad ones, especially on the defensive side of the ball, but if we want to look at just how much Missouri might (or might not) improve this fall, we should maybe start by looking at last year’s weakest links and move forward from there.
So here comes today’s thought exercise. I’m going to rank all 26 of Missouri’s primary starters — offense, defense, and special teams (kicker, punter, returns), then compare last year’s starter to (in my opinion) this year’s most likely starter.
(Mizzou still has yet to share anything resembling a depth chart this year — it’s 2016, and schools are sharing less than ever before — but for an idea of how the Tigers’ depth chart might take shape, check this out.)
26. Left Guard
2015 Starter: Alec Abeln/Nate Crawford
Likely 2016 Starter: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (Kyle Mitchell/Tre'Vour Simms/Kevin Pendleton/Nate Crawford/A.J. Harris/Trystan Castillo)
There’s no question that the offensive line was the worst unit on Missouri’s 2015 football team. We may have mentioned that once or twice. But while it was massively frustrating to see a unit with so many seniors struggling, to my eyes the shakiest position on the line was the one not occupied by a senior.
Alec Abeln came out of nowhere to win the starting job at the start of the year but struggled and got demoted. Nate Crawford was decent at times but got hurt (and has continued to struggle with injury in the offseason). And while these two players obviously weren’t to solely blame for the OL’s struggles, they didn’t get the job done.
They were only sophomores, though. Both still have time to make an impact, though it appears Abeln’s opportunity will come at center, and, if he can keep his back feeling good, Crawford could end up back at tackle. And this year, the starting LG job could go to ... just about anyone.
Luckily, the bar isn’t high. I can’t call this an upgrade, but it isn’t going to get worse. Verdict: ???
25. Kick Returns
2015 Starter: John Gibson
Likely 2016 Starter: Alex Ross/Chris Black
Gibson was woefully unsuccessful in 2015, averaging just 14.8 yards per kick return; Mizzou’s kick returns as a whole were amazingly bad -- the Tigers not only had the worst kick return average in the country (15.08), but they were more than a yard and a half behind the second-worst team (Buffalo, 16.60).
This wasn’t just Gibson — he had no blocking whatsoever. Mizzou’s youth issues in the receiving corps seemed to bleed into special teams a bit, and there were plenty of youth-related breakdowns in both blocking and coverage. If the blocking doesn’t improve, Mizzou could have the second coming of Jeremy Maclin returning kicks, and it wouldn’t matter much.
Still, there’s obviously room for upgrade, and in Alex Ross, Mizzou has upgraded. In two years of returning kicks at Oklahoma, Ross averaged 25.7 yards per return. That’s borderline top-30 in a given year. Verdict: UPGRADE.
24. Z Receiver
2015 Starter: Wesley Leftwich
Likely 2016 Starter: Nate Brown
Drew Lock inherited a receiving corps with no continuity whatsoever. The starters were two sophomores and a senior who had been a career reserve. The results were predictable. Nine players were targeted at least 15 times in 2015, and the only one to average better than an awful 5.7 yards per target was Ish Witter. A running back.
Of the three starters, Leftwich was the least successful. He hinted at explosiveness, averaging 13 yards per carry, but that was negated by a wretched 41.5% catch rate.
The receiving corps could shake down in a lot of different ways, but it appears Nate Brown might be the most likely to end up starting at the Z last year after he spent a lot of time in the H (slot) last year. Brown was slightly more successful than Leftwich last year, and he’s a year older now. Verdict: UPGRADE.
23. Punt Returns
2015 Starter: Ian Simon/Cam Hilton
Likely 2016 Starter: Chris Black/Aarion Penton/Cam Hilton/Ray Wingo
Cam Hilton was really close to breaking a couple of big punt returns (he actually did break one, but it was called back by penalty). Still, he had issues securing the ball (and not just because of the fumble against Georgia that should have been called kick catch interference), which is just a little bit important. And in the end, between Hilton, Aarion Penton, and the more sure-handed Ian Simon, Missouri averaged a paltry 5.9 yards per punt return, 100th in FBS.
I’m betting Chris Black has a chance to win this job, along with Penton, Hilton, Ray Wingo, and maybe one of the younger receivers (a Johnathan Johnson or Richaud Floyd, perhaps). Regardless, again, the bar is low. Verdict: UPGRADE.
22. Right Tackle
2015 Starter: Taylor Chappell
Likely 2016 Starter: Paul Adams/Nate Crawford
You could take most of what I said above about the left guards and apply it to right tackle as well. Taylor Chappell was serviceable at times, but ... I mean, the line had two NFL draftees and was still one of the worst in recent Mizzou history. That means you’re spending a lot of time less than serviceable, too.
Once again, there is not an obvious upgrade here. I like Paul Adams, and I think he could still develop into a solid three-year starter. But I can’t prove it until he proves it for me. Verdict: ???
21. Slot/H Receiver
2015 Starter: Nate Brown
Likely 2016 Starter: Chris Black
Brown lined up in a few different places but was listed as the H-receiver, a.k.a. the slot receiver, in three-receiver sets. Personally, I think he’ll be better out wide. Plus, Black appears custom-made for success in the slot. He’s probably not going to average 15 yards per catch, but if he can give Drew Lock a high-efficiency option with a 60-percent (or better!) catch rate, he’ll have done his job. Verdict: UPGRADE.
20. Right Guard
2015 Starter: Mitch Hall
Likely 2016 Starter: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (Kevin Pendleton/A.J. Harris/Kyle Mitchell/Tre'Vour Simms/Trystan Castillo)
See Left Guard and Right Tackle. We’ve heard quite a few good things about Kevin Pendleton, AJ Harris, etc., but we just don’t know yet. Verdict: ???
19. X Receiver
2015 Starter: J’Mon Moore
Likely 2016 Starter: J’Mon Moore
Moore would flash upside, then disappear for a couple of games at a time. He had 11 catches in the first three games, then only 18 the rest of the year. He made difficult catches and dropped easy ones. Regardless, he’s a year more experienced. That probably means at least a little bit of improvement. Verdict: UPGRADE.
18. Tight End
2015 Starter: Sean Culkin/Jason Reese
Likely 2016 Starter: Sean Culkin/Jason Reese
They look the part, and they’ve been able to flash glimpses of potential here and there. But when Lock desperately needed some reliable options to lean on, they were mostly invisible. Reese caught six passes in Lock’s first start, then caught five in the final seven games. But again ... experience. Verdict: (the slightest of) UPGRADE(s).
2015 Starter: Drew Lock
Likely 2016 Starter: Drew Lock
Close your eyes and remember what he looked like in August. Verdict: UPGRADE.
So of the bottom 10 categories, we’re looking at seven upgrades and three question marks. That’s encouraging, even if some of the upgrades are small.
16. Running Back
2015 Starter: Ish Witter/Russell Hansbrough
Likely 2016 Starter: Ish Witter/Alex Ross/Nate Strong
Witter improved late last season — he averaged 3.8 yards per carry through eight games and a less awful 4.8 in the last four games. He also caught that long pass against BYU, proving what many have suspected: that he could become one heck of a third-down weapon. We saw further proof of this in the spring game. And the addition of Ross, Nate Strong, and four-star freshman Damarea Crockett (plus the presence of a healthy Trevon Walters) mean he won’t have to shoulder too much of the load.
We saw last year that a single injury (Russell Hansbrough’s) can wreck a given unit, but the depth at running back is far more impressive now. Witter is a veteran, Strong and Crockett are four-stars, and while he got shut out of the rotation by Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon, Ross has still carried 123 times for 786 yards (6.4) with five touchdowns in his career. Verdict: UPGRADE.
2015 Starter: Kenya Dennis
Likely 2016 Starter: T.J. Warren/John Gibson/Logan Cheadle
Now we make the sudden, jerky switch from weaknesses to various degrees of strength. Kenya Dennis was just fine last year. He didn’t have quite the year that he was probably hoping, and he seemed to see some of his playing time diminished late in the year, but ... Mizzou ranked 15th in Passing S&P+. He was fine. The question is whether the combination of John Gibson and Logan Cheadle (the two players two whom he seemed to occasionally lose PT) and spring game starter T.J. Warren can match or exceed his quality. Verdict: ???
2015 Starter: Evan Boehm
Likely 2016 Starter: Alec Abeln/Samson Bailey
I honestly had no idea where to put Boehm on this list. He was rock solid in 2013 and 2014 and got almost immediately hurt, just like Hansbrough, last fall. He recovered to some degree, and on the rare occasion he was paired next to guard-turned-tackle Connor McGovern, the two seemed to get the push we expected from them.
The bar for replacing Boehm is maybe a bit lower than it would have been a year ago, but it’s still pretty high. Verdict: DOWNGRADE.
13. Strongside Linebacker
2015 Starter: Donavin Newsom
Likely 2016 Starter: Donavin Newsom
I feel like I’m not giving Newsom enough credit ranking him 13th -- the next six names or so are pretty much interchangeable. Regardless, he’s back, and with Kentrell Brothers gone, he’ll probably be asked to do more. Verdict: UPGRADE.
12. Strong Safety
2015 Starter: Anthony Sherrils
Likely 2016 Starter: Anthony Sherrils
We’re talking about him maybe going pro after this year. He’s good and getting better. Verdict: UPGRADE.
11. Left Tackle
2015 Starter: Connor McGovern
Likely 2016 Starter: Tyler Howell
McGovern was a great guard and a decent tackle. It’s a shame he was asked to play away from his strength, especially for an offense that needed every strength it could get. Regardless, if Tyler Howell lives up to hype (and girth), he should come pretty close. Regardless, Verdict: DOWNGRADE.
10. Defensive End
2015 Starter: Walter Brady
Likely 2016 Starter: Walter Brady/Marcell Frazier
He had 12.5 tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman, and by this set of rankings he was the fourth-worst defender on the team. That’s a high bar. Regardless, another year of development and a further push from Frazier, Nate Howard, etc., should mean good things. Verdict: UPGRADE.
9. Free Safety
2015 Starter: Ian Simon
Likely 2016 Starter: Thomas Wilson/Cam Hilton
Ian Simon was your typical, underappreciated leader in the back. Mizzou prevented big plays as well as almost any team in the country (Patrick Towles’ random, unexplainable downfield success was the exception, not the rule), and I think Simon had a ton to do with that. Wilson and Hilton have significant upside, but they’ll probably make some mistakes this year that Simon did not. Verdict: DOWNGRADE.
2015 Starter: Andrew Baggett
Likely 2016 Starter: Tucker McCann
McCann was clearing the end zone on kickoffs in the spring. It will be disappointing any time he ever boots anything but a touchback. But as well-touted as he is, in the place-kicking role you never know what you’ve got until you see guys making kicks in actual games. Baggett made a ton of them. Verdict: DOWNGRADE
7. Defensive Tackle
2015 Starter: Rickey Hatley/Terry Beckner Jr.
Likely 2016 Starter: Rickey Hatley/Terry Beckner Jr./Harold Brantley
HAROLD BRANTLEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY. TERRY BECKNER JR. WILL BE HEALTHY. HAROLD BRANTLEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY. TERRY BECKNER JR. WILL BE HEALTHY. HAROLD BRANTLEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY. TERRY BECKNER JR. WILL BE HEALTHY. HAROLD BRANTLEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY. TERRY BECKNER JR. WILL BE HEALTHY. HAROLD BRANTLEY MIGHT BE HEALTHY. TERRY BECKNER JR. WILL BE HEALTHY. Verdict: UPGRADE.
6. Defensive Tackle
2015 Starter: Josh Augusta
Likely 2016 Starter: Josh Augusta/Rickey Hatley
Conditioning will always be an issue for someone as big as Augusta, but he’s versatile for his size, and if/when he’s tired, he’s got tireless Rickey Hatley to help him out. Typical year-to-year improvement means Verdict: UPGRADE.
5. Middle Linebacker
2015 Starter: Michael Scherer
Likely 2016 Starter: Michael Scherer
Hey, captain. Verdict: UPGRADE.
2015 Starter: Corey Fatony
Likely 2016 Starter: Corey Fatony
He was awesome until his leg got tired. In theory, he won’t be asked to punt quite as much this year. In theory. Verdict: UPGRADE.
2015 Starter: Aarion Penton
Likely 2016 Starter: Aarion Penton
He might have come close to his ceiling last year, but he’s great. And even if he’s only 1% better, Verdict: UPGRADE.
2. Defensive End
2015 Starter: Charles Harris
Likely 2016 Starter: Charles Harris
See: Penton, Aarion. Verdict: UPGRADE.
1. Weakside Linebacker
2015 Starter: Kentrell Brothers
Likely 2016 Starter: Joey Burkett/Brandon Lee/Terez Hall
Whoever wins the battle between Burkett, Lee, and Hall will have athleticism, upside, and all sorts of potential. But Brothers was a finished product. Verdict: DOWNGRADE
So let’s organize these results by unit:
- QB: Upgrade
- RB: Upgrade
- WR: Upgrade, Upgrade, Upgrade
- TE: Upgrade
- OL: Downgrade, ???, Downgrade, ???, ???
- DE: Upgrade, Upgrade
- DT: Upgrade, Upgrade
- LB: Downgrade, Upgrade, Upgrade
- CB: Upgrade, ???
- S: Upgrade, Downgrade
- K/P: Downgrade, Upgrade
- KR/PR: Upgrade, Upgrade
That’s 16 ups (five potentially strong upgrades and 11 of the “same guy, but he’s probably improved a bit” variety), five downs, and four question marks. A recipe for potential improvement, only ... the worst unit on the team by far might get worse.
So this was basically a fancy, 2,000-word way to say the exact same thing we’ve been saying all offseason: If the offensive line improves, Missouri could improve dramatically. And the offensive line might not improve.