Missouri football kicked off spring practice on Tuesday, February 28th. Last week we looked at some of the key position battles unfolding on defense, and this week our attention turns to the offense.
New offensive coordinator Kirby Moore arrives after leading an excellent passing attack for the Mountain West champion Fresno State Bulldogs. He will be charged with upgrading a unit that struggled in 2022, ranking 74th in offensive SP+ and 84th in points per game. Many names familiar to Missouri fans return, but how they line up and how they are deployed has yet to be determined.
The headlining position battle for Missouri football will ultimately be anticlimactic in spring practice. Brady Cook, who has survived through a labrum injury, the resulting surgery, and an avalanche of online ire, will sit out spring ball as he nurses back to health. Sam Horn, the chosen one, will have a light workload after he tweaked his elbow on the pitching mound last weekend. Miami transfer Jake Garcia will take the majority of snaps with the first team.
For Missouri football to take the next step forward, quarterback play will have to improve over the mediocre production we have seen in the previous three years of the Drinkwitz era. If that is going to happen in 2023, Missouri fans might see a glimmer of it from Garcia this month, but otherwise will have to wait until fall camp for the real signs of progress.
This was the defining position of Eli Drinkwitz’s first two years in Columbia, thanks to star turns from Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie. Last year the ground game struggled, partly due to the turnstile offensive line play but also thanks to uninspiring production from the ball carriers. You know what you’re getting from Cody Shrader; he is a consistent back, a tough runner who protects the ball. Nathaniel Peat was phased out of the rotation as 2022 progressed thanks to indecisive running and fumbles; hopefully he can re-establish himself as a reliable complement to Schrader’s hard-nosed attack.
The wildcard here will be if redshirt freshman Tavorus Jones can push either of the two veterans for a significant role. The talented Texan was a four-star recruit and promises both physicality and game-breaking running ability, and can improve the ceiling of Missouri’s rushing attack if he is ready to step into a much more significant role.
Interior offensive line
Both tackle positions appear to be set: stalwart left tackle Javon Foster returns for his third year of starting, and Eastern Michigan transfer Marcellus Johnson will man right tackle. (Johnson held down the left side for the past two seasons in Ypsilanti, coincidentally protecting former Mizzou quarterback Taylor Powell.) But the interior is in flux, with a number of names battling it out.
Center will be a battle between returner Connor Tollison and Buffalo transfer Bence Polgar, with Drake Heismayer also pushing for snaps. Polgar was in line to start last season, his first in Columbia, but was ruled academically ineligible. Ideally he can elevate the position while Tollison continues to develop after he was forced into early action last year and struggled mightily against SEC defenders.
Xavier Delgado, in his sixth year on campus, will get every chance to continue to start at left guard, and Armand Membou, will slide inside to right guard after playing at right tackle last year as a true freshman. Veterans Luke Griffin, Mitchell Walters, and E.J. Ndoma-Ogar will also figure into the mix.
Last year’s offensive line struggled mightily, especially as injuries mounted down the stretch. A pair of impact transfers from the MAC can help this group take a step forward, starting with healthy competition in spring ball.
This is a position to monitor not because of intrigue in the personnel, but to see how Missouri is going to incorporate tight ends in 2023. Tyler Stephens and Ryan Hoerstkamp return from Missouri’s worst position room in 2022; Tiger tight ends were targeted only 15 times last season. The blocking from the group was so ineffective that the coaching staff often resorted to formations with six offensive linemen. Kirby Moore’s offense used the position mostly in blocking roles last year; 1,086 snaps for his tight ends resulted in only 45 targets. This is unlikely to be an impact position for the team in the upcoming season, but Tiger faithful should monitor if the group can get back to respectability and in what role.
Wide receiver rotation
The astute fan will be plugged into how Missouri’s deep group of pass catchers are utilized in spring ball. Moore was the wide receivers coach during his time in Fresno, and he helped develop a number of talented players. Oklahoma transfer Theo Wease and Ole Miss transfer Dannis Jackson are both former highly touted recruits who underperformed at their first stops; both are breakout candidates working with Moore. They will battle in-house options like Mekhi Miller, Peanut Houston, Mookie Cooper and Chance Luper (non-contact participant) for playing time.
It will be critical for one or two of these players to establish themselves as high-caliber options on the outside alongside Luther Burden, who is moving into the slot to replace Dominic Lovett. The blue chip potato chip purveyor was lined up out wide for 85% of his snaps last season, and he often struggled to get a clean release against physical cornerbacks in the SEC. Expect a star season from Burden in his second year on campus, thanks to Moore’s expert tutelage, and more favorable usage. The signs of his breakout should be visible all spring.