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Positions of Opportunity for the 2019 Missouri Tigers

Groups like the safeties and defensive ends have a bunch of people returning, but does that necessarily mean they’re settled?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Alabama
Missouri’s safety picture, again, appears to have a good deal of blurring around the edges. Can someone like Tyree Gillespie provide a little clarity?
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Back when I was a beat writer, I called these “positions of need.” You know, positions where Missouri either lost a lot of experience from one year to the next or ended the previous season in an unsettled fashion and still had a “need” to gain stability.

Now that I’m a public relations professional, I call them “positions of opportunity.” Spots where players have the greatest “opportunity” to carve out new roles for themselves because they’re not set in stone.

Here, then, is an accounting of the Tigers’ position groups heading into 2019, ranked from most “opportunity” to least. The non-class and height/weight numbers in the parentheses are the snaps per game each player logged last year on offense or defense. Not special teams.


Safety
Pct. Snaps Returning: 71.8
Starters Returning: Khalil Oliver (Sr., 6-1/210; 38.5)
Rotation Candidates: Ronnell Perkins (Sr., 6-0/205; 21.9); Joshuah Bledsoe (Jr., 6-0/205; 39.9); Tyree Gillespie (Jr., 6-0/210; 30.7); Jordan Ulmer (Jr., 6-2/190; 7.0); Jalani Williams (Fr., 6-2/175)

Seems strange that safety would be the Tigers’ position of greatest opportunity with 72 percent of its snaps returning, right? Well consider, first, that the guy with the most returning snaps in the group – Oliver – wasn’t starting in the spring. Consider, too, that for the past two years, Missouri has employed a revolving-door ethos at safety in which four guys basically all play the same amount over the course of the season, falling into and out of favor week over week and even mid-game. Consider, three, that while Perkins, Bledsoe and Gillespie all have shown promising signs throughout their career, none of them has exactly screamed “stick me out there for 80 snaps a game and never take me out!” with their play. Consider, four, that the Tigers are also experimenting with what they want to do with that 11th defender, whether it’s going to be a more traditional safety, a more traditional linebacker or a little from Column A, little from Column B. And, five, that Missouri’s most compelling high school prospect from the Class of 2019 – Williams – is coming off shoulder surgery, so we don’t know what that will do to his immediate development. Throw that all into the blender, and you’ve got a position that is in serious need of some clarity heading into the fall.

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Defensive Tackle
Pct. Snaps Returning: 36.3
Starters Returning: Jordan Elliott (Jr., 6-4/315; 28.8)
Rotation Candidates: Kobie Whiteside (Jr., 6-1/310; 13.7); Markell Utsey (Jr., 6-4/295; 9.0); Chris Daniels (Jr., 6-4/315); Tyrell Jacobs (Sr., 6-4/285; 5.7); Antar Thompson (Jr., 6-5/300; 4.5)

I almost put this as a position of less opportunity than the ends because at least the tackles have what looks to be one plus starter ready to go in Elliott. But they just lost too much with Terry Beckner, Walter Palmore and Rashad Brandon all heading out. And there isn’t much in the way of experienced help to go along with Elliott. Whiteside’s been in and out of the rotation for the past two years. Utsey played his most as a true freshman in 2016 and lost most of last year to injury. Jacobs has been a depth-builder up until now. Maybe Daniels can give the Tigers a JUCO bump and come on strong? A whole lot of “I dunno” all over the line for Missouri heading into 2019.

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Linebacker
Pct. Snaps Returning: 47.3
Starters Returning: Cale Garrett (Sr., 6-3/230; 57.2)
Rotation Candidates: Nick Bolton (Soph., 6-0/235; 13.9); Gerald Nathan (Fr., 6-1/215); Jacob Trump (Sr., 6-3/230; 4.4); Aubrey Miller (Jr., 6-2/225; 6.5); Jamal Brooks (Jr., 6-1/240; 6.2); Cameron Wilkins (Soph., 6-2/245; 3.0)

OK, so here’s my thinking on this one. Yes, the linebackers have only one starter returning like the tackles and yes, you’d think there would be more opportunity with two starting spots up for grabs and a comparable level of readymade experience waiting in the wings. But Missouri is also going to experiment with having that sort of third safety/linebacker hybrid sort of dealie this year, so I figure that takes away one of these starting linebacker slots some of the time. Hence, less opportunity. The guys on the roster, though, look a lot like the tackles, with one plus starter (Garrett), one backup who saw some meaningful game snaps (Bolton) and a bunch of other guys who have barely played on defense. Or, in the case of Nathan and Wilkins, not played at all on defense. Wilkins, remember, is a more experienced H-back than linebacker at his point in the journey. Like Elliott, Garrett is going to have to do some heavy lifting within his position group, at least until things start shaking out a little bit.

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Defensive End
Pct. Snaps Returning: 82.4
Starters Returning: Chris Turner (Jr., 6-4/255; 37.7); Tre Williams? (Jr., 6-5/260; 35.3)
Rotation Candidates: Akial Byers (Jr., 6-4/280; 27.4); Trajan Jeffcoat (Soph., 6-3/245; 11.8); Jatorian Hansford (Soph., 6-4/245; 4.1); Sci Martin (Jr., 6-3/225); Franklin Agbasimere (Sr., 6-2/245; 6.9)

I put the ends this high on the list, even with 82 percent of their snaps returning, for two reasons. One, what’s the deal with Williams? Still on the roster, but didn’t take part in spring ball. If he ends up not being around anymore, that percentage plummets to 58.5 percent. Plus, he was losing snaps to Byers by the end of last season anyway. Two, none of the guys returning to the position really gave the Tigers that much in terms of production last year. So, even though they have a lot of dudes coming back, they don’t have a lot of dudes who have really etched their name in stone as solutions at this important position. For that reason, it’s open season.

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Offensive Line
Pct. Snaps Returning: 63.5
Starters Returning: Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms (Sr., 6-5/330; 72.6); Trystan Colon-Castillo (Jr., 6-4/315; 71.4); Yasir Durant (Sr., 6-7/330; 69.5)
Rotation Candidates: Hyrin White (Soph., 6-6/305; 14.4); Larry Borom (Soph., 6-6/340; 9.8); Case Cook (Soph., 6-5/295; 20.8); Mike Ruth (Fr., 6-7/320; 12.5); Bobby Lawrence (Fr., 6-8/300); Javon Foster (Fr., 6-6/315); Xavier Delgado (Fr., 6-5/330; 12.0)

The Tigers don’t get to enjoy the sort of line stability luxury that they had last year, when all five starters returned. This time around, they’ve got to find solutions to fill the gaps left by three-year starters Paul Adams and Kevin Pendleton. The good news is they’re also buttressing those inexperienced spots with three-year starters in Wallace-Simms, Colon-Castillo and Durant. Cook was the backup guard of choice last year but left the spring duking it out with Borom for the starting spot, and White has held his spot as Adams’ heir apparent since last fall. That’s the thing with new starters, though. You don’t really know what you’re getting until you see them out there for more than 10 snaps at a time, game after game.

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Wide Receiver/Tight End
Pct. Snaps Returning: 67.6
Starters Returning: Albert Okwuegbunam (Jr., 6-5/255; 52.4); Jalen Knox (Soph., 6-0/195; 46.0); Johnathon Johnson (Sr., 5-10/180; 45.5)
Rotation Candidates: Kam Scott (Soph., 6-2/170; 24.0); Daniel Parker (Soph., 6-4/260; 23.7); Jonathan Nance (Sr., 6-0/190); Richaud Floyd (Sr., 5-11/195; 21.7); Dominic Gicinto (Soph., 5-9/180; 10.8); Alex Ofodile (Sr., 6-2/200; 9.0); Brendan Scales (Jr., 6-4/240; 6.5)

Here we start getting into the offensive skill positions with embarrassments of options. Emanuel Hall’s size/speed/quickness profile is going to be hard to replace, but Knox got plenty of opportunities to see what it was like last year when Hall was out. Ditto for Scott when Nate Brown was hurt. Johnson’s basically a four-year starter in the slot, and Okwuegbunam was having a possible All-America season before his injury last year. Even that was a bit of a blessing in disguise, though, because the Tigers got to see what Parker had to offer. Throw them all together with the Arkansas transfer Nance, Floyd (if he doesn’t stick at cornerback…he’s listed as a defensive back on the roster right now…), Gicinto and others, and you’ve got plenty of options to recoup what was lost.

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Cornerback
Pct. Snaps Returning: 95.5
Starters Returning: DeMarkus Acy (Sr., 6-2/195, 57.8); Christian Holmes (Jr., 6-1/200, 43.2)
Rotation Candidates: Adam Sparks (Jr., 6-0/180; 52.8); Jarvis Ware (Soph., 6-1/190; 11.3); Chris Mills (Fr., 6-0/185)

Missouri has two possible All-SEC players returning at corner, if Acy can quell the burnt-toast tendencies that reared their ugly head against Oklahoma State and Holmes can dial back the aggression a bit and keep the flags off the field. A bit, I said. Not too much. His borderline pathological physicality is what makes him an effective cover corner. The only intrigue here is whether a healthy Sparks can snipe some snaps off of Acy and Holmes if either struggles (or gets hurt) and if Ware, Mills – or possibly, as we discussed earlier, Richaud Floyd? – can differentiate himself enough in the preseason to get a second look from coaches.

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Running Back
Pct. Snaps Returning: 71.2
Starters Returning: Larry Rountree (Jr., 5-10/210; 34.4)
Rotation Candidates: Tyler Badie (Soph., 5-9/190; 19.6); Simi Bakare (Soph., 5-11/205; 6.3)

The Tigers have a 1,200-yard rusher returning, plus a very capable third-down back in Badie. Losing Damarea Keener-Crockett leaves some uncertainty – as well as carries up for grabs – but Badie showed enough last year to get a longer look, Bakare got some meaningful snaps as a true freshman, and Anthony Watkins could get some run as well.

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Quarterback
Pct. Snaps Returning: 6.27
Starters Returning: Nah.
Rotation Candidates: Kelly Bryant (Sr., 6-3/225)

And he’s it. Which is why, even with only 63 snaps returning – and 15 of those moving out to wide receiver for the foreseeable future – this doesn’t rank high on the “unsettled positions” chart. Plus, behind the graduate transfer, Missouri has (maybe?) TCU transfer Shawn Robinson and definitely Taylor Powell, who was Drew Lock’s garbage-time replacement last year.