Drew Lock. Terry Beckner Jr. Damarea Crockett. Emanuel Hall. Albert Okwuegbunam. The offensive line. Terez Hall and Cale Garrett.
Those dozen listed above would, rightly, be considered among the most important factors upon which the fate of the 2018 Missouri Tigers will rest. Those are the no-brainers.
But what about some of the more under-the-radar guys? Players who aren’t obvious choices to be stars for this year’s Tigers but who, if they find a way to put together plus years, could go a long way toward being the difference between 6-6 and, say, 8-4 or 9-3?
Let’s take a look at eight such players on the Missouri rosters, ones who may not play starring roles in season preview stories but could end up having a lot to say about how the ‘year in review’ features go.
It’s not my place to make relative importance judgments, so let’s go ahead and take them alphabetically:
TE Kendall Blanton, Sr.
2017 stats: 16 targets, 6 catches, 138 yards, TD; 26.1 snaps per game
Blanton was a part-time starter last year who increasingly took the back seat to Okwuegbunam as the season went on. Still, he played crucial roles as a lead blocking back in the Tigers’ run game, as well as a recipient of the surprise read option seam route that Lock peppered in for big plays from time to time.
With Jason Reese graduated and candidates such as Brendan Scales and Logan Christopherson inexperienced, coordinator Derek Dooley is going to need Blanton’s versatility – 50 percent of his snaps came in the backfield last year, 35 attached to the line, 15 split wide – in all aspects of the offense, both as a sub for Okwuegbunam and in two- or (dare we say?!?!!?) three-tight end sets.
S Joshuah Bledsoe, Soph.
2017 stats: 13 tackles, TFL, sack; 9.6 snaps per game
From the seemingly always confused jumble that is the Tigers’ safety corps emerges a true sophomore who played his way out of a redshirt and onto the field in a pivotal role last season. Bledsoe was Missouri’s main specialty set weapon last year, moving into Kaleb Prewett’s nickel linebacker role once the Tigers moved Prewett to safety just before the midway point of the season.
Through spring ball, Bledsoe moved back to his natural position and carved out a spot for himself with the 1s alongside Cam Hilton. Now he has experience playing in the box as well as shadowing slot receivers in third-and-long pass situations, both of which could prove very valuable as he roams the deep quadrants for the Tigers.
WR Nate Brown, Sr.
2017 stats: 13 targets, 11 catches, 89 yards; 12.8 snaps per game
This is where Brown was supposed to be before the 2016 season, before the ankle injury that cost his entire junior season. Missouri needs a steady, mid-level guy to play opposite of Hall and Johnathon Johnson’s field-stretching capabilities, and the veteran – the one who actually played on the Tigers’ 2014 SEC East championship squad – could hold that key. He caught 84.6 percent of the passes thrown his way last season.
Yes, it’s an extremely small sample size, but even if he puts about 10 percentage points on Hall and Johnson’s catch rates from last year – 55.2 percent, combined – over 60 to 70 targets, that’s 35-45 valuable catches. Brown can be the hitch/cross/shallow post/seam guy that provides a nice counterbalance to Hall and Johnson’s vertical threat.
P Corey Fatony, Sr.
2017 stats: 44.3 average, 21 of 58 (36%) inside the 20, 16 of 58 (28%) 50+ yards
Fatony’s had kind of a strange career in black and gold. As a freshman, the Tigers’ abysmal offense made his leg nearly fall off. He set a school record for punts in a season and booted the ball 6.75 times a game. The past two years, with the offense picking up, punts have been harder to come by: 5.50 per game in 2016, 4.46 in 2017. So Fatony’s found a way to amp up the quality in absence of quantity, becoming a master of skying, angling and making his punts nearly impossible to return.
How does he become even more valuable this year? By doing the same thing. But, with the offense being a bit more methodical, each punt is going to mean more. A punt in a 13-possession game is, generally, about 24 percent more impactful than a punt in a 17-possession game. An opponent starting five of its post-punt possessions in a 17-possession game is less impactful than five in 13. Just ask Missouri, which started 10 of its 17 possessions inside the 20 in the Texas Bowl, thanks to the Longhorns’ Michael Dickson.
Fatony is already a huge part of the Tigers’ field-position equation. He could be an even bigger part if Missouri’s offense starts throttling down the possessions in a game.
CB Christian Holmes, Soph.
2017 stats: missed season following shoulder surgery
The most healthy Missouri pass defenses have three capable cornerbacks they can trot onto the field at any time. E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder had an Aarion Penton in 2013. Penton and Kenya Dennis had a John Gibson (and a Logan Cheadle) in 2015.
DeMarkus Acy and Adam Sparks ended up being fairly solid starters at corner for the Tigers by the end of last season. Holmes’ continued development will have a lot to say about how strong Missouri’s third option is this year. If Holmes is the answer, given his size/strength profile, he could not only be a valuable 2b option at corner, but also a piece Missouri could use in its Nickel and Dime sets.
His trajectory had him en route to a starting spot as a true sophomore last year. Things didn’t really turn out as planned, but he can still see his way to a significant role with the Tigers’ defense in 2018.
DT Walter Palmore, Sr.
2017 stats: 13 tackles, 2.0 TFL; 16.4 snaps per game
Or, like, any one of eight other interior defensive linemen. Really, Missouri just needs someone besides the guy with “Beckner” on the back of his jersey to be a difference-maker at tackle. Palmore started alongside Beckner at the spring game and was fully in the top-three rotation at the beginning of last year before injury sidetracked him.
With Missouri experimenting with a 3-4 front (Beckner at end every now and then? Wouldn’t that be fun…), Palmore is the type of big-bodied block absorber who could be a really valuable nose. Depending on how these next couple months go, he could be the tip of the spear on a deep, talented pool of tackles, or the least bad option in a group of guys without much experience at the major-conference level. Either way, he should be a factor.
RB Larry Rountree, Soph.
2017 stats: 126 carries, 703 yards, 6 TD; 8 targets, 5 catches, 57 yards; 22.0 snaps per game
In today’s world of college football, no feature back is an island unto himself. Unless you play in the Big Ten or something. Then Melvin Gordon’s running the ball like 75 times a game (he’s still at Wisconsin, right?). In the ess-eee-bleepin-cee, though, even if you have a Leonard Fournette, you still need some other guys to sop up 15 to 20 carries a game. Henry Josey had his Russell Hansbrough, Hansbrough had his Marcus Murphy, Crockett had his Ish Witter and, last year, Witter had his Rountree.
Somewhat surprisingly, as Rountree was a little-used true freshman before Crockett’s injury upped his usage considerably: from 6.3 carries a game over his first four to 12.4 over his last eight. We don’t know, yet, how far back from the shoulder injury Crockett is. We do know, though, that Rountree is going to be an important part of the offense, either as a feature back or as Crockett’s Robin. That’s a role in which he excelled last year. And, lest we forget, Rountree was also the Tigers’ top kick returner. He’ll make his presence known in some form.
DE Tre Williams, Soph.
2017 stats: 20 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks; 21.8 snaps per game
The most experienced returning player at the Tigers’ least experienced position. And it’s the position the Tigers have been the most famous for over the past decade or so. And he’s just a redshirt sophomore. And he missed the last half of spring ball following shoulder surgery. The end equation has the potential to look real ugly for Missouri this year. But, if Williams comes all the way back and consistently maintains the flashes he showed toward the end of last season, the Tigers could also be onto something real special.
You could almost see the light bulb switch on for Williams last year, and the coaches rewarded him, upping his action to 29 snaps per game over the final six. Missouri’s marquee end has put up at least 7.0 sacks a season since 2013. Williams has the best chance of improving on that number. And, if he doesn’t, the Tigers’ line could be in trouble.