We’re a little more than a week away from the spring game.
According to the team’s talented cadre of beat writers, Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett has the inside track at nickelback — which, as you know, is a subject that doesn't move me at all — Natereace Strong is back from a disclosed suspension and T.J. Warren is back from one of those super-secret ones, and Nate Howard is turning some heads after coming off an injury-laden sophomore year.
Good content. Very informative. No sarcasm font at all. But does any of it matter?
Story time, gentle readers. Gather around.
This is something I often struggled with during my time as a professional college football reporter, both here and in Auburn and North Carolina. All these spring drills, all the stuff that these teams go through in March and April, did any of it really mean anything? Did it, at least, proportionally mean anywhere near as much as the time and effort we put into covering it?
The answers I came to, in order of the questions posed, was “yes” and “no.”
It means much more for guys who ended the previous season lower on the depth chart and are clawing their way up or, perhaps, trying out a new position.
Does it really mean anything for guys with proven starting spots, like Drew Lock and J’Mon Moore? Nahhhhh.
Is there a way to quantify how much spring practice actually means at Missouri, up and down the roster? Not really. But I’ve got a way that’s...OK maybe? If very subjective.
Over the past three years, based on my perceptions, I’ve picked out an offensive and defensive player that it seemed were helped out the most by spring drills.
Then I saw if that actually meant anything once the season rolled around.
Here’s what we got.
QB Drew Lock: Yes, Lock had a starting spot coming out of his freshman year but yes, he also disastrously helmed a disastrous offense. And all the indications from new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel had it as an open competition with Marvin Zanders. But, throughout the course of the spring season, Lock looked more like the dynamic, level-headed quarterback of fall 2015 drills than the skittish, dejected one at the end of 2015 and seized the spot, culminating in a 9-of-13, 134-yard, two-touchdown performance in the spring game.
How’d That Work Out For Him?: For half the season, very well. For the other half, not so well. Lock looked like a worldbeater against inferior competition and even strung together some good halves against Georgia, Arkansas and Vanderbilt. But he also had some downright Maukian games, showcased a distressing habit of not reading entire defenses and lacking touch on some easier throws. The spring gains were evident, but perhaps more sporadic than drills would have indicated.
CB T.J. Warren: Basically, the redshirt freshman came out of nowhere to seize the other starting cornerback spot opposite from proven senior Aarion Penton. Clamping down on media practice access lent a bit more mystique to Warren’s rise, since the media wasn’t really allowed to see anything and then — SURPRISE!!! — Warren was with the 1s!
How’d That Work Out For Him?: Warren did not start out the season with the 1s at cornerback and, really, only played a handful of snaps at that position throughout the year. He found his most time at nickel linebacker after Michael Scherer got injured, playing in all 12 games, starting one and logging 24 tackles. The gains appear to be slipping away, though, given the phantom suspension and starting the spring at the bottom of the linebacker depth.
RT Nate Crawford: I’ll let former Tribune hack David Morrison tell you about the standouts from here on out. I wonder whatever happened to him? Just as well, he was the worst.
And to think, at this point last year, Crawford had just finished his redshirt freshman season as a defensive tackle. Now, the 6-foot-5, 290-pound Crawford exits the spring in a platoon starting at right tackle for the Tigers with Clay Rhodes. Actually, a smidge ahead of Rhodes. That's quite a climb in 12 months. Crawford said he took his lumps last year -- getting beaten repeatedly in one-on-one pass rush against Shane Ray and Charles Harris will do that to you -- but he's a long, athletic tackle with a high ceiling that position coach A.J. Ricker says just seems to keep progressing on a day-by-day basis. Even if he doesn't win the starting job in the fall, he repped at guard last year and could be part of the solution at one of those two slots. Ricker seems determined to give Crawford all the chances he can, and Crawford has been taking advantage of them thus far.
How’d That Work Out For Him?: Crawford ended up starting a majority of the games at the end of the line on a historically bad Missouri offense. He also missed a bunch of time with an ankle injury, extending a bad-luck streak that started with back surgery and ended with more back surgery that eventually cost him his football career. That wasn’t Crawford’s fault, though.
DT Rickey Hatley: Basically since the moment Josh Augusta got on campus, he's been a big hit with the fans. Why not? He's huge and surprisingly nimble for his 6-4, 335-pound frame. He played as a true freshman, which deepened that sense of possibility. He picked off a tipped ball against UCF, which also sent fans into a tizzy. So who's Rickey Hatley? Just the guy who quietly beat out Augusta for the first-team tackle spot beside Harold Brantley during spring drills. At 6-4, 285 pounds, Hatley gives Missouri a little more sleek look up front. And with his background repping at defensive end -- he actually played there more often than tackle last year -- he gives the Tigers another interior lineman with pass-rush acumen. Brantley's going to be Missouri's big-play guy on the inside, so anything it gets from the other spot is going to be a bonus. Hatley's put himself squarely in position to fill that role.
How’d That Work Out For Him?: Due to that horrific car accident, Brantley actually did not become Missouri’s big-play guy on the interior. Hatley did, though, keep his starting spot throughout the season and anchored the middle of the line on a historically good Missouri defense. Hatley and Augusta were the highest-repping tackles, and Hatley held that starting spot over into 2016. All told, he parlayed that strong spring into some pretty good things over the rest of his time in Columbia.
RB Morgan Steward: So Steward's the biggest running back on the team. Oh, he also may be the fastest, you say? And he can throw in some moves in the open field and has some sure hands out of the backfield? Do go on. Steward led all running backs with 30 carries for 173 yards over the three scrimmages. Yes, his role increased due in part to injuries to Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. But he was never really in competition with them. It was his job this spring to show that he could be to Hansbrough and Murphy this season what they were to Henry Josey last year: an option to help keep the starter(s)' legs fresh and maybe present the defense with a little something different to worry about. What Steward showed is he can be even more different from Murphy and Hansbrough than they were from Josey last year. If that makes sense. At 6-1, 210, he's got the bulk to take an inside hand-off on 3rd-and-1 or 3rd-and-2 and have a really good chance of converting. He's a more straight-up runner than Hansbrough and Murphy, who tend to get low and dart more, and -- while those two can get behind their pads and deliver a hit -- physics would tell you Steward's are more punishing. Plus, as mentioned earlier, he's fast. And elusive. He can do more than just eat up carries while Hansbrough and Murphy rest. He can make a defense have to game plan for him.
How’d That Work Out For Him?: Like Crawford, this is not Steward’s fault, but he only ended up carrying 10 times for 18 yards the rest of his Missouri career. All came in 2015, after he missed 2014 due to RIPPING PART OF HIS HIPBONE OFF in a non-contact injury during fall practice. Sorry to shout but...I just can’t imagine...
Steward had to retire from football as well, leaving the spring awakening unfulfilled.
CB Kenya Dennis: Missouri's getting good at this whole "find a junior-college transfer, shuttle him in at nickelback and let him go wild" thing. It worked well for Duron Singleton last year and it looks like it's going to work pretty well for Dennis again this season. Dennis, the 6-0, 200-pound defensive back from Hinds (Miss.) Community College, looked very comfortable backing up Singleton at nickelback during the scrimmages. Playing mostly with the twos, he got to test himself against the ones more often than not and came off looking pretty good. He always seemed to get himself into the right position to be around a play and -- while he didn't always make it -- he did more often than not. Like Singleton last year, you can tell he still needs some more immersion in the Missouri defense before he's completely comfortable. But, like Singleton last year, the on-field production once he hits that learning curve will probably start coming fast and furious. And unlike Singleton last year, he's got a four-month head start. Dennis is fast, physical and tracks the ball well. He can spell Singleton at the nickel and also probably slot into the cornerback rotation if Missouri finds itself needing a fourth or fifth. He can be a valuable piece.
How’d That Work Out For Him?: Pretty well, actually. Dennis ended up taking one of the starting corner spots from John Gibson in 2014, then turned it into 61 tackles, 10 passes defended and a whole lot of promise for his senior year in 2015. While he struggled during his final season in black and gold, Dennis still held onto regular playing time throughout. Like Hatley, spring was Dennis’ springboard.
Now, as a bonus to you loyal readers, let’s look back at some main storylines from last year’s spring ball and see if they ended up mattering at all:
— Will Drew Lock (or whoever) have anyone to throw to?: This actually didn’t end up being a huge issue, as J’Mon Moore put up a 1,000-yard season, Dimetrios Mason (who got there over the summer) had a breakout year, and Johnathon Johnson and Emanuel Hall had star moments here and there. Yes, there were significant issues with drops, but the wideouts produced a lot more than they did the year before.
-- The offensive line is a bunch of children: Yes, the Tigers’ line was exceedingly young in the spring and ended up being exceedingly young all season long. But Paul Adams, Tyler Howell and Kevin Pendleton proved an extremely capable foundation, and Samson Bailey, Alec Abeln, Adam Ploudre and Jonah Dubinski did the rest, making Missouri’s line one of the stingiest in the nation when it came to sacks and tackles for loss allowed. Didn’t end up being an issue at all.
— How dominant can this defensive line be?!: Ummmm, not very? Charles Harris had a good final year at Missouri and Marcell Frazier came on strong at the end but, for the majority of the year “porous” was a beneficent description of what was going on at the front of Missouri’s defense. Guess that’s what having one guy for 15 years, then three over the span of 11 months, can do to a group.
— Who will start alongside Scherer and Donavin Newsom?: This, actually, ended up being kind of an issue to watch all year. Joey Burkett got his ups, as did Brandon Lee and — once Scherer went down and Newsom started battling injury — Cale Garrett and Eric Beisel. Now they all get to do it again this spring.
How will we look back on that on this point next year?