Granted, Mizzou fans are a bit distracted by a certain basketball coaching search, but ... spring practice is upon us!
Spring is a time of renewal, optimism, positivity, etc. And it appears Barry Odom is feeling quite a bit happier than he was 12 months ago.
“I feel a little more in control right now than I did last year at this point,” Odom said. “I know our roster from top to bottom better than I did last year at this point. I know our staff better than I did at this point. … With the structure of the day-to-day things, you never figure it out. I’m not saying that, but I’ve got a lot more comfort and also feel the urgency on how much better we need to get.”
Odom praised the job the 2017 senior class did setting the tone during the offseason.
The Tigers spent two extra weeks compared to last season focused solely on building strength in the weight room, pushing morning conditioning later in the calendar.
There are some over-arching questions to deal with as Mizzou looks to rebound, but here are a few story lines emerging from the first day of practice.
1. Nate Brown is back.
Mizzou returns five of last year's top six targets in J'Mon Moore, Dimetrios Mason, Johnathon Johnson, Emanuel Hall, and the currently injured Kendall Blanton. But the Tigers ALSO return the No. 2 and No. 4 targets from 2015.
Jason Reese (27 targets, 15 catches in 2015) is healthier and back atop the depth chart in Blanton's absence. Meanwhile, 2015's No. 2 guy, Nate Brown, is back from an ankle injury that cost him all of 2016.
From the KC Star:
“I don’t plan to ease back in,” Brown said. “I have high expectations. My personal goals exceed any other goals anyone could have for me. If they have me as a starter or a backup, whatever, I just know that every time I line up that I’m going to give 100 percent. I’m going to get better, work on my craft and see where that takes me.”
Asked if he ever considered transferring, Brown said, “Not at all. I love it here. A couple of my friends have left the program, but for me it’s more than just football here. It’s a family, all the way from the academic staff to the treatment room. They’ve always looked out for me and always had my back. This is the place for me.”
Brown wasn't dominant as a sophomore, catching just 27 of 58 passes for 326 yards and four touchdowns. But a) no one was dominant in the lost season of 2015, and b) he had his moments. He caught seven passes for 115 yards and two scores in the first two games of 2015 (before everything began to go awry), and he caught five for 65 in the late-season win over BYU.
Brown brings some size to the table that players like Mason and the slot receivers (Johnson, Ray Wingo, Richaud Floyd) do not. He could be an intriguing weapon, and in a way, it's like Mizzou is returning four starters for its three receiver positions.
2. Terry Beckner Jr. is ahead of schedule.
Now the good news. Barry Odom said Terry Beckner Jr's recovery is coming along much quicker than expected. Pleasantly surprised.— Ben Frederickson (@Ben_Fred) March 8, 2017
Terry Beckner Jr on new DL coach Brick Haley pic.twitter.com/ZcGAxDbmza— Zoulogy Podcast (@ZoulogyPod) March 8, 2017
New Missouri defensive line coach Brick Haley on the first day of camp pic.twitter.com/IPXbwnVHNR— Zoulogy Podcast (@ZoulogyPod) March 8, 2017
That’s all you can hope for at this point. The former blue-chipper suffered his second season-ending knee injury in two years last fall, and a healthy Beckner could be a huge, disruptive presence for a defensive front that needs exactly that.
Speaking of which...
3. Redemption time for the Mizzou defense
It’s a complete role reversal from a year ago: Whereas the Mizzou offense is at least a partially known quantity, the defense has a ton to prove. From Ben Frederickson:
The gap-scheme system that seemed to turn a once-feared defensive line into a bunch of Average Joes has been declared dead. Harassing quarterbacks, not clogging running lanes, is the focus once again.
“It was like playing with your legs taped together and your arms behind your back,” starting defensive end Marcell Frazier said. “We are attacking, man. This (season) is going to be like Shane (Ray) Markus (Golden), Kony (Ealy), how they played. We want to play like that. And we feel like we are going to help out the back end when we play faster up front.”
Starting linebacker Eric Beisel offered a big-picture diagnosis for what went so wrong last season.
“I wouldn’t blame it on the package,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame it on coaching. It comes down to players, having the right mindset, going out and winning every day.”
"We don't have a day to waste. They said we are the worst defensive front in the SEC going into next season. That's huge. We're not necessarily trying to prove them wrong, but we got to prove to ourselves that this is still DLineZou."
Those are the words of senior defensive end Marcell Frazier. With six defensive lineman joining Mizzou this summer the starting DE said there is no time to waste waiting for those guys to show up. The newcomers will just have to learn quickly and catch up in preseason camp.
Not sure who “they” is there, but regardless, the line was pretty damn bad last year. Mizzou fell from 14th to 109th in Rushing S&P+ last season, and while the havoc stats improved when the Tigers moved back to a more attacking, less gap-controlling scheme, the run defense never really came around. Beckner's return will help, but he's only one guy.
4. Nate Strong is suspended
Violation of team rules. We’ll see how long that suspension lasts. Meanwhile, another running back is less than 100% ... but that isn’t really a new phenomenon:
Ish Witter played all last year with torn labrum in shoulder. Said he injured it last spring and surgery would've meant missing time in fall— Blake Toppmeyer (@btoppmeyer) March 8, 2017
Witter had surgery after the season. Said he feels about 80%— Blake Toppmeyer (@btoppmeyer) March 8, 2017
And here’s a little bit of bonus content for you: Gary Pinkel talked to InsideSTL about retirement life, his health, etc.