The losses — and not game losses — keep piling up for the Missouri football program.
It started when the NCAA announced it was denying the school’s appeal on sanctions on Nov. 26. With no possible bowl game to play for, Missouri managed to beat Arkansas on Friday to finish the season with a 6-6 record, but another loss came Saturday morning when head coach Barry Odom was fired after just his fourth season on the job.
Then, in three consecutive days to begin this week, the Tigers lost three of their most important players on either side of the ball. Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott announced on Twitter on Sunday that he would forego his final year of eligibility and enter the 2020 NFL Draft in April. The next morning, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam tweeted that he would also be leaving Missouri without exhausting his final year of eligibility. And to finish off the three-peat, center Trystan Colon-Castillo announced he’d be joining his two teammates and entering the Draft as well, making it three redshirt juniors who’ve decided to move on early.
Thank you mizzou for everything ✊ pic.twitter.com/P1yYScRTO4— Trystan Castillo (@TCastillo55) December 3, 2019
Elliott and Okwuegbunam’s decisions didn’t come as surprises.
Elliott finished the season as the highest-graded interior defender by Pro Football Focus after posting 44 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries and three pass breakups. This came in just his first season as a full-time starter, which made it even more likely it could be his last with the Tigers.
His rise in 2019 led to rumors all season long that he’d leave Columbia, and even though he hasn’t been named in many early mock drafts, earning an invite to the NFL Combine could push his stock even higher.
Okwuegbunam was even more of a lock to say his final goodbye to Missouri after this season. His breakout redshirt freshman season in 2017 led to an even better 2018 when he caught 43 passes for 466 yards and six touchdowns, though a shoulder injury suffered against Florida forced him to miss the last four games of the season.
He still could have entered the 2019 Draft and might have been picked based on his talent and potential alone. However, Okwuegbunam decided to return to Missouri to build on his productive first two seasons.
That build, though, never really came to fruition.
Okwuegbunam was relatively uninvolved in the offense outside of the red zone, and though he matched his six touchdown receptions from 2018, his 26 catches for 306 yards (even after playing in two more games than last season) were both career-lows and he constantly dropped passes that would’ve seemed too easy for him to not haul in during his first two seasons. With uncertainty at head coach and quarterback heading into the offseason, Okwuegbunam decided to avoid potentially hurting his stock in 2020 and is instead going pro.
Colon-Castillo’s decision is the most surprising of the trio, though with everything that’s occurred within the program over the last 10 days, it’s definitely understandable.
The center of one of the top offensive lines in the country for Drew Lock’s final two seasons in 2017-18, Colon-Castillo started each of the last 38 games. The line regressed this past season, proving unable to provide the same protection for transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant or to open holes for the running backs. But where Colon-Castillo’s leadership on the field couldn’t fix the issues on the line, his words off the field turned him into arguably the face of the program.
Colon-Castillo’s sound-bites were constantly pasted on social media, and he became the most vocal player in the wake of Missouri’s second-half struggles. Colon-Castillo was also a big supporter of Odom as he constantly championed his coach’s ability to lead the program, and Odom’s firing likely played a role in his decision to leave school a year early.
Without Elliott, Kobie Whiteside likely becomes the leader at defensive tackle. Whiteside had a productive year himself, and he should be the No. 1 defensive lineman as long as he returns to school. Akial Byers seems most likely to replace Elliott with the 1s, but Markell Utsey should also challenge for the spot.
Without Okwuegbunam, Daniel Parker Jr. is next in line to be the starting tight end. Parker was solid whenever he spelled Okwuegbunam this season, and he caught four passes for 25 yards in his lone start of the season against Tennessee. As a converted defensive end, though, Parker doesn’t quite have the skillset Okwuegbunam displayed in his three years with the Tigers.
Without Colon-Castillo, Missouri’s offensive line is almost devoid of experienced linemen. Yasir Durant and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms, the only other remnants from Missouri’s dominant starting five from the last two years of the Lock-era, have played their four years of college football. Case Cook could move over from left guard to take over as starting center, though Thalen Robinson, Colon-Castillo’s main backup in 2019, might also be an option.
Along with the seniors who’ll be moving on and possible transfers, the departure of these three starters means the Tigers will have a different look in 2020.
And even though the head coaching job remains the biggest question mark at this point in the offseason, how Missouri replaces Elliott, Okwuegbunam and Colon-Castillo is still high on the list of questions to be answered.