'Why do we fall? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.' - Alfred Pennyworth
Use players in the correct roles
I call them “role-stars” and I probably stole the concept from NBA champion Tristan Thompson, “Be a star in your role ... that’s high energy, use my motor, just play hard. Play hard, be relentless.” If Missouri can put the right players for the right roles it becomes much easier to build around them.
Watching an incredibly talented and ultimately NFL ready athlete play out of position because the coaching staff can’t adjust its philosophy was incredibly frustrating. Barry Odom recently said, “ideally you have five redshirt seniors,” when asked about Missouri’s young offensive line, but that clearly wasn’t enough last year.
Offensive line coaching and play is practically a dark art, unfathomable to outsiders who never strapped it up and put knuckles in the dirt. But playing Connor McGovern at left tackle for an entire season when he was clearly at his best playing guard next to Evan Boehm, the two of them anchoring the interior? Continuing to play a turnstile at right guard and only giving the backup up some run when the season was almost over?
This issue extended beyond the offensive line. Missouri insisted on using several skill players out of position or in the wrong roles throughout their offensive, historically inept, bottom-of-the-entire-college-football-world campaign.
I’m not here to tell you that Tyler Hunt should have started at running back or was a better back than a healthy Russell Hansbrough, though he did have a knack for big plays and converting short yardage plays. Hunt had his limitations -- we saw that on several plays where he missed assignments -- but he was Missouri’s ace in the role, one they seemingly refused to acknowledge.
Develop youth you can trust
Especially on the offensive line. Playing Mitch Hall at right guard for the majority of the season when he so clearly wasn’t getting the job done and Kevin Pendleton was available boggles my mind. Maybe the backup isn’t a starter-caliber player yet, but when the actual starter isn’t getting it done, why sacrifice development?
Missouri’s calling card under Gary Pinkel was player development. High schoolers went into Pat Ivey’s Muscle Emporium still carrying baby fat and came out as redshirt juniors and seniors who could carry 300 pounds because their core was so strong. Seriously, go check out what guys like Lucas Vincent, Max Copeland, Elvis Fisher and others look like now that they shed their playing weight. It’s honestly impressive and it’s clearly worked for guys like Mitch Morse and Justin Britt, who have successfully transition into the NFL.
The problem was when, for whatever reason, those guys don’t work out, Missouri was left fielding below average talent. It took phenomenal talent to play as a freshman for Missouri, and the guys who did clearly earned it. Yet some had to wait years to see playing time, and it meant they had less experience handling live-game scenarios.
Barry Odom has already made a point of saying he wants players who can come in and compete immediately. Nine of Glen Elarbee’s 12 lineman are sophomores or younger, and two of the three upperclassmen on the roster just made it to campus.
Six seniors plus Charles Harris will be gone from Missouri’s defense after this year. The offense will only lose four seniors to graduation, and three of them are grad transfers brought in by Odom.
Missouri may struggle to make a bowl game in 2016. Young players are going to have to step up in a big way this fall to improve the overall wins count and prepare for larger roles in the future. I’d take the lumps now, during a rebuilding year, rather than later.
The offense needs explosive play-makers
Since we’re not sure any player on the current roster is a true “star,” none of them deserve to dominate reps, snaps, playing time, or offensive focus. In football you get six skill position players. You can’t put players on the field who don’t contribute positively. As fast as Wesley Leftwich was last year, he didn’t present a legitimate deep threat because he couldn’t reel in those catches. This was on a team that desperately needed explosive plays.
Long time assistant Andy Hill, back coaching receivers, has made specific mention that his guys need to be more explosive and play with speed. That doesn’t just mean the tempo of the play calling, it means when they catch a pass they must make guys miss and head up field.
Missouri used to manufacture explosive plays by getting their fastest and best players out in space on a variety of screens. For all the criticism David Yost took for his reliance on bubble screens, Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander made him look damn good when they went to the house.
There are currently 13 receivers on scholarship, six running backs and five tight ends. That means, not counting quarterbacks, almost 30% of the roster is devoted to skill position players -- yet there’s no clear separation from the pack. In fact, it sounds like the newcomers, be they freshman or grad transfers, have the best chance to be impact players this year.
Drew Lock wasn’t the problem
Missouri’s offense struggled for a variety of reasons. True freshman Drew Lock at QB was certainly a problem, but he was hardly the problem. As I said in our spring walkthrough piece, Missouri fans seem to hold every QB to the Chase Daniel standard and that’s just unrealistic. But Drew Lock has a solid shot at being a rich-man’s Blaine Gabbert.
Lock is a future NFL QB based on his arm-talent and prototypical size. Whether you think he’s the next Brady Quinn, Matthew Stafford or Gabbert, he still needs the guys in front of him to block and the guys around him to make plays. Odom has gone to great lengths to raise the level of talent around Lock; Chris Black from Alabama, Alex Ross from Oklahoma, two JUCO lineman and a running back, an entirely new offensive coordinator and line coach.
Lock, to his credit, has reportedly put in the work to improve. He’s bigger and should have a better rapport with his receivers after a full off-season. Even if he’s no Tim Tebow, he’s a dual-threat QB with the ability to run the zone-read convincingly.
I still expect fans to call for the backup to play at the first sign of trouble. Marvin Zanders is very fast and has reportedly made significant strides as a quarterback under Josh Heupel’s tutelage. And perhaps the new offense really fits his style. Having watched Micah Wilson in just a few practices, I’ll tell you he has a live arm and is pretty athletic in his own right. But if Heupel can’t make his system work with Drew Lock, that’s a bigger cause for concern, one that’ll need to be addressed sooner rather than later.
The weakness will be what you un-expect
I distinctly recall the major concern heading into Missouri’s fall camp last year was the lack of depth on the defensive line. Stout defenses carried the Tigers on back to back trips to Atlanta seemed suddenly barren and Charles Harris was just the guy that got to play when Markus Golden or Shane Ray were absent. We were wondering if Terry Beckner Jr. would play as a freshman and if Harold Brantley would every play again.
With the news that former Freshman All-American Walter Brady and redshirt senior Harold Brantley have been dismissed from the team we are reminded once again of college football’s capricious nature.
Last year, fans were worrying about the impending quarterback competition and if Missouri could handle playing Drew Lock behind Maty Mauk. Then there was concern about Gary Pinkel burning Lock’s redshirt when Mauk still had another year of eligibility. Little did we realize he’d finish somewhere else.
Turns out it was the offensive line, the one that was largely the same as the last two years, that would became the Tigers’ Achilles heel. I realize I’ve probably spent half of this post talking about the offensive line, and that probably remains insufficient. This year the one thing fans seem sure of is Missouri’s defense, and why shouldn’t they?
Missouri’s upgrade in conference was reflected in the transition from Big 12-grade offense to SEC-style defense. Even when everything was going wrong, Missouri managed a nationally relevant defense. But does the defense become more of a question mark than we expect this year? It’s never what we expect.