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Three early takeaways from Mizzou’s spring football practices

Opportunity awaits in the secondary and along the interior of the offensive line.

NCAA Football: Stanford at Oregon State Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

The early portion of Mizzou’s spring practices have not exactly provided a plethora of storylines. Access for those covering practice is, well, limited. It’s not like it once was. And that tends to lead to fewer in-person observations.

That said, there has been some legitimate news to come out of the early portion of spring - both good and bad - which is worth breaking down. Let’s take a look at three stories coming out of camp worth monitoring as things progress.

1) The secondary is full of opportunity for young players

Missouri is going to be without safety Martez Manuel (torn UCL), cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (torn ACL), slot cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine (shoulder surgery) and safety Stacy Brown (arrest) for at least a portion of the spring. That’s, well, less than ideal. But it also opens up some significant opportunities for a position loaded with young players.

Eli Drinkwitz completely remade the secondary over the last couple seasons. The Tigers had five defensive backs sign with the team in the 2021 class, and added another four players to the position this offseason either via the transfer portal or high school recruiting. Those young guys are going to be tested early and often this spring.

The Tigers are down to Jaylon Carlies, Joseph Charleston, Jalani Williams, Tyler Hibbler and Tyler Jones as scholarship options at safety. The only healthy cornerbacks participating at the moment are DJ Jackson, Daylan Carnell, Davion Sistrunk, Marcus Scott II, Dreyden Norwood and Zxequan Reeves.

It’s hard to know for certain, but my assumption would be Carlies and Charleston will get the majority of the starting reps at safety. Jackson is clearly the top cornerback option. After that, there should be some robust competition for opportunities.

Gabe DeArmond of PowerMizzou asked wide receiver Mookie Cooper on his latest ‘Hangin’ with Mookie Cooper’ podcast which players are standing out thus far in the spring. Mookie mentioned two defensive backs worth keeping an eye on: Davion Sistrunk and Daylon Carnell.

2) A position battle emerging at center?

You don’t know what you got until it’s gone. That’s how the ‘ole saying goes, right? Missouri is hoping it doesn’t have to find that out the hard way without Michael Maietti’s presence along the offensive line.

Maietti was as consistent as they come both on and off the field. He was the leader of the position group, he was the man in charge of making the protection calls and he was arguably one of the most consistent linemen in the SEC over the past two seasons.

And now he’s gone.

“We put a lot on our center’s plate, whether that’s in the run game or the pass game,” Coach Johnson said. “Mike (Maietti) was phenomenal about it. He and I would meet at different times without everybody else throughout the course of the season just so he would have a better understanding of what we were looking for, especially on third downs. A lot is on that center’s plate just from a leadership standpoint.”

Drinkwitz and the offensive staff went to work in the offeason hoping to find a capable replacement for Maietti. They hope they found one in former Buffalo starting center Bence Polgar. Polgar has reportedly been taking the majority of the starting reps at center thus far in the spring. That shouldn’t come as any surprise. His backup, though, seems to be a player worth keeping an eye on.

“The only thing that he lacks right now at this point is experience and meaningful playing reps,” Coach Johnson said. “I think that kid has got a chance to be a really good player once he starts getting meaningful reps on Saturdays.”

Tollison was a big get coming out of high school even if his recruiting rankings didn’t suggest as much. He held offers from the likes of Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Ole Miss. If that sounds atypical for a lowly rated 3-star recruit, that’s because it is.

Tollison was an absolute mauler at Jackson High School where he completely wrecked opposing defensive linemen who dared get in his path. He’s surprisingly athletic and did a great job in the open field. His best ability might be his versatility; he’s someone who can succeed inside or out, and it sounds like his future at Mizzou might be best served along the interior.

My money would still be on Polgar to enter the season as the Tigers’ starting center, but it’s worth keeping an eye on Tollison. He’s clearly going to factor into the starting lineup at some point, whether it’s this year or next.

3) Missouri has a chance to be one of the best return teams in the conference

Missouri’s special teams units have gone from awful to solid over the last couple years, but the one area which could still use a bit of improvement is the return game. Two newcomers could be exactly what the doctor ordered.

Stanford transfer running back and former Rock Bridge star Nathaniel Peat is returning to Columbia to serve as the Tigers’ likely starting running back, but he’s also going to be a factor in the kick return game. It’s an area in which Peat excelled in his time at Stanford.

He finished last season with the 17th best yards per kick return average (24.95) among players with at least 20 opportunities last season. It was simply a continuation of what he did the year prior. Peat is one of the better returners in the country, and his presence should significantly improve the Tigers’ 82nd ranked unit from 2021. The last time Missouri ranked among the top five best kick return units in the SEC was 2014. I’ll go out on a limb and say Peat is enough for Mizzou to get into the top five once again 2022.

You’ve probably heard the name Luther Burden. Longtime St. Louis recruiting analyst Danny Heitert has said repeatedly that as good a receiver as Burden is, he’s even better as a returner.

“In the punt returns in the 30 years I put out the report I never saw a punt returner like him,” Heitert told the Post-Dispatch. “I saw some good ones but I never saw anybody who was the kinetic force he is.”

The Tigers have ranked among the bottom five in the conference in punt return average each of the past four seasons. It would shock me if we don’t see Burden take at least one return to the house this season. He’s that good.