Spring football is supposed to be a time of hope and optimism. But that’s not always the case. I vividly remember one season in particular when we all should have known things were not going in a positive direction.
It was spring camp leading into the 2015 season. Mizzou is coming off back-to-back seasons as SEC East division champions. I was covering the Tigers full-time at the time for KTGR as I prepared to graduate from Mizzou in May. I was at just about every spring practice that year. At the time, we didn’t get to see a ton of practice. But we saw enough.
Mizzou’s four most productive wide receivers from 2014 had departed. The leading returning wide receiver was Nate Brown, who finished his freshman campaign with a grand total of five receptions. Guys like Keyon Dilosa, DeSean Blair and Ray Wingo were expected to be significant contributors.
It became very clear, very early that Mizzou’s receiving options were simply not going to cut it. The same issues we all saw in spring practice showed up on the field that fall when the Tigers simply didn’t have enough talent outside to field a productive offense.
Not every spring is as telling as 2015. But we always learn a bit about the team. This year will be no different.
Here are the five storylines I’ll be paying the most attention to as the Tigers take the field for spring football beginning this Saturday.
5) Will the offensive line questions get answered?
We often get lost in talking about “returning production” and immediately go to the stat sheet. There aren’t many numbers readily available to quantify the production of an offensive lineman, but we certainly notice when they’re missing.
Mizzou is missing three good ones with the departure of Yasir Duant, Trystan Colon-Castillo and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms. That’s a significant amount of snaps to replace with very few obvious answers as to who will immediately step up.
The more snaps the starting offensive line can take together before the first week of the season, the better. So much of having a quality offensive line is about chemistry. Getting a head start on developing that chemistry in a brand new offense could be key.
4) Who will emerge among the crowded field at wide receiver?
Mizzou has a lot of receivers. We have no idea how many of them are going to be productive, but there are a lot of players who will suit up as a receiver for Mizzou in 2020. The goal for spring camp should be to sort through the pile to see which players can actually play for Drink, and which players will soon be viewed as depth pieces.
Damon Hazelton Jr. will be a starter for Mizzou as long as he is cleared by the NCAA. Barrett Banister flashed some ability as a reliable option in the slot. Jalen Knox followed up an impressive freshman season with a less-than-thrilling sophomore campaign. And after that, it’s a whole lot of question marks. There is plenty of playing time up for grabs, and there are some intriguing young options at the position who could step up with a strong spring performance.
3) Are we seeing any creative looks on offense from Eli Drinkwitz?
One of the things I’m most interested in finding out is how Drinkwitz will use his chess pieces. I’m not sure how much (if at all?) Drink will open up the playbook this spring, but it’s hard to hide everything. Is he using Tyler Badie out of the slot? Are the tight ends lining up all across the formation? How often are both Badie and Larry Rountree lined up together in the backfield? This is all worth keeping an eye on.
2) Will anyone step up at defensive end?
The single biggest question on the defensive side of the ball is what the plan is going to be at defensive end. Chris Turner is more or less written in ink as a starter despite finishing last season with a total of two sacks and four quarterback hurries (per CFBStats).
Tre Williams is probably the favorite to start opposite Turner, but it’s hard to know what to expect from him. Will one of the defensive tackles kick outside? Are the Tigers going to leave the spring knowing they need to add a JuCo or graduate transfer who can come in and play right away? These are all questions that need answered. And similar to the receiver question in 2015, there’s a chance we know right away just how much of a concern defensive end is for the Tigers as we progress through spring camp.
1) Will Shawn Robinson show enough to be the clear #1 quarterback going into the summer?
I talked about this briefly with Nate Edwards on last week’s episode of “Before the Box Score”, but this could be Mizzou’s first legitimate quarterback competition since Blaine Gabbert won the job over Blaine Dalton in the spring of 2009.
It appears Robinson is the favorite as we enter camp, in part because Connor Bazelak is still rehabbing after his torn ACL from the Arkansas game. That being said, I wouldn’t completely write off Bazelak just yet. Robinson will have to earn this job based on his play in the spring. If he doesn’t, there’s still plenty of time in the fall for Bazelak to earn his way into the starting role.