Recruiting is the lifeblood of a college football program. The transfer portal has become a supplemental source of talent, but programs will never fully replace their ability to develop talent from within.
A player like Dominic Lovett is a great example of this. The former East St. Louis 4-star recruit arrived on campus with significant expectations, but his freshman year ended with a thud. Lovett finished with just 173 receiving yards in 13 games. It should come as no surprise, but Lovett’s biggest struggles came against conference foes. He finished with just 14 receptions for 66 yards (4.7 yards per reception) against SEC opponents.
The transition to the college game takes time, even for the best recruits. For Lovett, it was a one-year transition before we saw his breakout. He matched his first year’s receiving production in less than three games this season. He is now among the SEC’s leading receivers and could have finished with a truly special season if he wasn’t slowed by a nagging ankle injury.
These kinds of stories happen every year. Talented young players get on the field, go through some growing pains, and eventually break through. It happened with Lovett at Missouri this season, and it will almost certainly happen for someone in 2023. The Tigers have plenty of candidates. Missouri’s 2021 recruiting class was ranked 19th nationally by Rivals, only to be bested by the Tigers’ 2022 class, which ranked 12th nationally. Missouri added a combined 12 blue chip recruits in those two classes.
Who are the most likely candidates to break through next year the way Dominic Lovett did in 2022? Let’s break it down.
Honorable Mentions: OT Armand Membou, RB Tavorus Jones, QB Sam Horn, TE Ryan Hoerstkamp, DE Arden Walker
Missouri’s recent recruiting success leads to quite a few players as legitimate breakout candidates. Most of them, thankfully, reside on the offensive side of the football. Offensive tackle Armand Membou started against New Mexico State, and I really didn’t notice him. That’s a compliment. Membou has the third highest grade of any Missouri offensive lineman, according to Pro Football Focus. He is credited with just two pressures on 92 pass blocking snaps. For context, Zeke Powell has allowed seven pressures in 20 more snaps. That’s pretty darn impressive, considering Membou was considered an offensive guard prospect coming out of Lee’s Summit North. He should compete for a starting job along the Tigers’ offensive line next season, and he has the potential to be one of their better linemen.
The remaining Tigers listed are on the list for potential rather than production. Tavorus Jones showed some serious burst last week in his first game action, but he’s going to have to work on his ball protection. Sam Horn was thought to be the next big thing at quarterback for Missouri, but the reports have been mixed and he’s barely seen the field. Is he going to be ready to start next season? It’s hard to say with any certainty. Ryan Hoerstkamp is a personal favorite. You guys know by now that I’ll stan for THE HORSE, and it’s worth noting he’s played at least 30 snaps in each of the past two weeks. He’s taking advantage of his opportunity, and will likely go into next season as the starting tight end. Arden Walker looked good in his limited reps last season, but he found himself buried on the depth chart after the Tigers targeted edge rushers in the portal last offseason. Opportunity should open up next year, and Walker is one of the early favorites to earn snaps.
3) Wide Receiver Mekhi Miller
Nothing about Mekhi Miller’s stats from this season will jump off the page, but he’s made some legitimately clutch plays for the Tigers. That’s not easy to do as a true freshman. Miller came down with a 20-yard catch on third and 18 and a 18-yard reception on third and 15 agains Florida. He also had a 25-yard reception on second and eight late in the third quarter against Kentucky. It might not sound like much. But it certainly felt significant in the moment.
On his three catches, he flashed some serious skills. He high pointed a ball on the sideline and had the presence of mind to get his foot down. He shielded the ball from a defender and fought through contact for another catch against Florida. And on the reception against Kentucky, he turned upfield and got some serious YAC, breaking a tackle in the process.
#Mizzou freshman WR Mekhi Miller has made the most of his limited opportunities this season. pic.twitter.com/ok7eTeH6OW— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) November 21, 2022
Miller feels like an obvious candidate to replace Tauskie Dove in the starting lineup next season. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. That’s bigger than the vast majority of Missouri’s wideouts. I’m not calling for Miller to be the best wide receiver in the SEC, but I think he’s going to be a serious factor for this offense.
2) STAR Daylan Carnell
Any guesses on who Pro Football Focus rates as Missouri’s top coverage player in the Tigers’ secondary? If you guessed Daylan Carnell, you would be correct. The sophomore STAR has two interceptions and four pass breakups on the season. He’s one of the Tigers’ hardest hitters and if Missouri tracked “impactful plays per snap,” I would guess Carnell ranks at or near the top of the list.
Went back and watched some of Daylan Carnell's biggest plays from this season. I would bet on him playing on Sundays sooner rather than later. pic.twitter.com/slfb4O97AB— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) November 21, 2022
This is not so much a bet on a young player “figuring it out” next year so much as it is about opportunity. Carnell should step right into the vacancy left by Martez Manuel as the Tigers’ starting STAR in 2023. Carnell has played 273 snaps this season, according to Pro Football Focus. He should double that number next year, barring injury.
1) Wide Receiver Luther Burden III
I know, I know. It’s not much of a surprise. Sometimes the obvious answer is the correct answer, and I think that’s the case here. Burden burs onto the scenes with a two touchdown performance against Louisiana Tech. He looked like the most athletic player on the field. And then the competition got tougher, he battled an ankle injury and the production took a step back.
The game log tells a clear story. Burden had at least 60 yards from scrimmage or multiple touchdowns against Louisiana Tech, Abilene Christian, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and New Mexico State. He failed to exceed 30 yards from scrimmage in any other game. His talent was enough to dominate against the inferior opponents, but he still needed refinement against the better teams on Missouri’s schedule. That was to be expected. The jump from high school football to SEC football is steep. We saw it last season for Lovett, and we felt it once again with Burden.
Mizzou true freshman wide receiver Luther Burden II reminds me of Deebo Samuel with the ball in his hands.— Luca Sartirana (@SartiranaLuca) November 20, 2022
He's already one of the most dynamic and lethal pass catchers in college football. He will be a top-tier draft prospect at the position.pic.twitter.com/PqpPExBwy6
Burden’s freshman season, though, was far from a failure. He has nearly 400 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage. His five receiving touchdowns are tied for second most by any Power Five freshman, according to PFF. His season reminds me a bit of Dorial Green-Beckham’s freshman year. You could see the talent, but it was clear he needed time to refine some things.
That’s exactly what happened for DGB in year two. He jumped from 28 receptions for 395 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman to 59 receptions for 880 yards and 12 touchdowns as a sophomore. He became the player everyone was expecting. I expect the same to be true for Burden next season.
The Tigers have no shortage of candidates to make the leap next season. Who do you believe is most likely to make that jump in 2023 from bit contributor to breakout star?