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Missouri’s 2018 positions of opportunity

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Where do the Tigers need the most immediate help, and who can give it to them?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Arkansas
Tre Williams is the closest thing Missouri has to an old hand at defensive end.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

With February’s National Signing Day — you remember that thing? Signing Day? The thing that used to mean a lot more before this year? — less than a week away, it seemed as good a time as any to take a look up and down Missouri’s 2018 roster to see where the Tigers need the most immediate help and how well equipped they are to shore up said positions, what with their returning players and signees.

That was quite a run-on sentence. I hope you’ll find the rest of the post more aesthetically pleasing.

In the past, I’ve taken to calling these “positions of need.” But one of my New Year’s Resolutions is trying to have a more positive mindset about things (Author’s Note: It’s not working.)

So now, rather than positions of “need,” let’s go ahead and call them positions of “opportunity.”

See? Much Better.

I’m going to order these position groups from most opportunity to least opportunity. And I’m not doing special teams. Tucker McCann, Corey Fatony, Richaud Floyd and Larry Rountree were all doing adequate jobs at the end of last year, so why rock the boat?

Oh, and the numbers in the parentheses next to people’s names are their number of snaps per game last year.

Defensive End

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 33.7
  • Starters Returning: Zippo.
  • Candidates: Tre Williams (Soph., 18.5); Chris Turner (Soph., 18.9); Nate Anderson (Sr., 10.8); Daniel Parker Jr. (Fr.); Trajan Jeffcoat (Fr.)

Not much here when it comes to returning production. Williams came on pretty strong at the end of the year, so he’s the closest thing to a “sure thing” starter in this group. But he’s not, like, a Marcell Frazier sure thing.

Turner was strong at the beginning of last season as well so, if you put he and Williams together, you get one serviceable starting end for a season. Good thing Parker and Jeffcoat look like two of the more talented signees in the class. They could very well be pulling reps with the second — or first — team very early in their careers, almost out of necessity.

Safety

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 46.6
  • % of Un-Suspended Snaps Expected to Return: 21.9
  • Starters Returning: Kaleb Prewett ... maybe (Sr., 53.8)
  • Candidates: Ronnell Perkins (Jr., 19.7); Joshuah Bledsoe (Soph., 8.8); Cam Hilton (Sr., 12.7); Jordan Ulmer (Soph., 6.3); Tyree Gillespie (Soph.); Tavon Ross (Sr., 1.8)

Yes, Prewett’s indefinite suspension is kind of the elephant in the room. If he comes back, at least Missouri has a returning starter who played well the back half of the season at one of the most important positions on the field for a defense as prone to explosions as the Tigers.

If Prewett doesn’t come back...it’s like the island of misfit toys out here trying to cobble together a two-deep. Perkins, Hilton and Ulmer have all fallen in and out of the coaches’ favor multiple times during their careers in Columbia. Gillespie earned a purely special teams redshirt burn and could have played himself into position to contend this year.

Bledsoe spent the tail end of last season as the team’s starting nickelback in specialty sets, but if Ryan Walters decides he’s too indispensable to see only 10 times a game, he could very well carve out a niche at safety.

Ross, too, is an enigma. Like Perkins (and to an even greater extent), he’s seen his career sidetracked by injury. Unlike Perkins, he’s shown enough tooth-loosening hit power on special teams to make you think, “Hmm...he might be fun at safety.” He’s currently listed as a linebacker, but there’s really no upward mobility there. At safety...well...let’s just say there’s “opportunity.”

Wide Receiver

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 59.5
  • Starters Returning: Emanuel Hall (Sr., 40.9); Johnathon Johnson (Jr., 41.6)
  • Candidates: Richaud Floyd (Jr., 20.2); Nate Brown (Sr., 10.8); Harry Ballard (Soph.); DaRon Davis (Fr.); Kam Scott (Fr.); Jalen Knox (Fr.); Danny Gray (Fr.); Justin Smith (Jr.)

Hall and Johnson did more than enough last year to maintain their starting spots into 2018. The main question is who makes up for J’Mon Moore?

Floyd has shown glimpses of dependability as Johnson’s backup and could possibly be an option outside if Missouri wants to go back to more of a Dimetrios Mason receiver there. Brown struggled coming back from his 2016 season-ender, so he may end up being a depth guy at best.

Ballard will be especially interesting to watch, being a guy who was physically ready to step on the field when he first signed two years ago but had to go the junior-college route. Well...he’s here now. And Missouri has a bit of a luxury with this third wideout spot because, with Hall stretching people deep and Johnson stressing people, like, everywhere, the Tigers can afford for the third starter to be pretty average this year.

Somebody who runs the right routes and has good enough hands. That’s about all they need.

Defensive Tackle

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 87.5
  • Starters Returning: Terry Beckner (Sr., 46.2)
  • Candidates: Jordan Elliott (Soph.); Kobie Whiteside (Soph., 21.2); Rashad Brandon (Sr., 19.6); Markell Utsey (Jr., 18.4); Walter Palmore (Sr., 13.8); Antar Thompson (Soph.); Akial Byers (Soph., 6.0)

Terry Beckner is the East St. Louisan god of melted souls. Yet he so loved us mortals that he decided to remain on this earth to play out his final year of eligibility. No human instrument may set him asunder, ‘cept the physician’s scalpel.

That’s all a long way of saying that one of these spots is spoken for. The other is a free-for-all.

Whiteside, Brandon, Utsey and Palmore failed to separate themselves last year, so that leaves the door wide open for the Texas transfer Elliott — if he’s got his conditioning figured out...which offseason Instagram videos suggest he has... — to step right into a starting role.

Don’t forget about Thompson, the 23-year-old sophomore, either. And if Michael Thompson comes on board, the arithmetic gets even more favorable. There’s so much potential depth at this spot that you’ve got to wonder, if things are looking optimistic in preseason camp, if Barry Odom and Co. wouldn’t consider bumping Beckner out to being a gigantic end and letting two other guys take over at tackle. Just a thought...

Cornerback

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 75.9
  • Starters Returning: Adam Sparks (Soph., 48.0); DeMarkus Acy (Jr., 52.8)
  • Candidates: Christian Holmes (Soph.); Jerod Alton (Soph., 8.8); Finis Stribling (Sr., 2.1); Terry Petry (Fr.)

The real intrigue here is where does Holmes fit in? He cut his teeth on special teams in 2016 and was getting good advance pub going into last season before shutting down with an injury.

Sparks and Acy both played better toward the end of the year, but both still have sizable coverage bust potential. So does that leave Holmes playing a relief role behind them this season? Or does it leave him challenging one for the starting spot?

Tight End/H-Back

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 84.0
  • Starters Returning: Albert Okwuegbunam (Soph., 34.9)
  • Candidates: Kendall Blanton (Sr., 26.1); Brendan Scales (Soph.); Logan Christopherson (Fr.); Messiah Swinson (Fr.)

Anyone who’s read my stuff should know my feelings on Okwuegbunam: consistent, insistent and borderline inappropriate. So he’s a pretty important part of the 2018 Missouri offense. Blanton will be, too, with his potent mixture of pass-catching and blocking.

Where Jason Reese’s graduation leaves an opening is for a a receiving-heavy tight end. And, really, any of the three newbies could fit that bill. They’re all tall, athletic and have been called upon as primary receivers in their past. So yeah, #TightEndPassGame is in pretty good shape.

Linebacker/Nickelback

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 86.0
  • % of Un-Suspended Snaps Expected to Return: 78.3
  • Starters Returning: Terez Hall (Sr., 58.4); Cale Garrett (Jr., 53.5); Brandon Lee (Sr. 40.2)
  • Candidates: Jamal Brooks (Soph., 1.5); Aubrey Miller (Soph.); Chad Bailey (Fr.); Bledsoe; Hilton; Ross; T.J. Warren (Jr., 6.0)

There’s not much drama among the starting spots. Hall, Garrett and Lee all played well last year — sometimes very well — and this spot should be a strength in 2018.

Depth is where the guesswork comes in. Brooks and Miller got a bunch of special teams experience, and Bailey is one of the most highly touted catches in this year’s class. We saw last year that the Nickel as a base defense didn’t work too well for Missouri, but it did in short doses.

So who gets the leg up at nickelback or, in the Dime, slot corner? And has Warren emerged from the perennial doghouse he seems to find himself in?

Running back

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 53.2
  • Starters Returning: Nada.
  • Candidates: Damarea Crockett (Jr., 13.9); Larry Rountree (Soph., 20.3); Isaiah Miller (Fr.); Dawson Downing (Soph., 3.2)

Ish Witter will be missed, but Crockett coming back full strength is a pretty good salve. Rountree showed he was more than ready for prime time last year, and unless things go pear-shaped, there really shouldn’t be too many carries that those two don’t get.

Offensive Line

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 87.2
  • Starters Returning: Paul Adams (Sr., 64.8); Tre’Vour Simms (Jr., 64.5); Trystan Castillo (Soph., 62.7); Kevin Pendleton (Sr., 56.2); Yasir Durant (Jr., 44.2)
  • Candidates: Jonah Dubinski (Jr., 7.5); AJ Harris (Jr., 3.7); Samson Bailey (Sr., 2.6); Larry Borom (Fr.); Pompey Coleman (Fr.); Case Cook (Fr.); Hyrin White (Fr.)

This is one of the most quietly effective groups in the country, so enjoy it while it lasts. Because four-fifths of it is graduating in the next two years. So this could be a nice way for those four redshirt freshmen to get second-team practice reps and a game snap here and there while not having to be the guy.

You know...unless the injury bug bites.

Quarterback

  • % of Snaps Expected to Return: 100
  • Starters Returning: Drew Lock (Sr., 65.3)
  • Candidates: Micah Wilson (Soph., 4.3); Lindsey Scott (Soph.); Jack Lowary (Jr., 0.6); Taylor Powell (Fr.)

Secure the bag. Then duke it out in 2019. It’ll be interesting to see if Scott gets any specialty sets this year, though. Or Wilson, for that matter, being a mobile quarterback as well.