On Monday, we’ll begin talking about Missouri’s upcoming trip to Florida. The Gators got an unexpected bye week thanks to Hurricane Matthew, and it has become one of the major story lines in the SEC East. If Tennessee loses to Alabama this coming Saturday but wins out from there, the Vols will finish 6-2 in conference play. But if Florida wins out and doesn’t have to play LSU, the Gators finish 6-1 and win the East. It’s an interesting twist, and I know forces that be are trying to make sure these two teams still have a chance to play.
But again, that’s for tomorrow. To cap off Missouri’s bye week, I wanted to do ... well ... what I try to do at every opportunity: Look ahead. Not at the rest of 2016, but at 2017.
Five games into Missouri’s season, we’ve had some surprises, both good and bad. That is always the case, but it seems to be particularly so this year. The passing game can be controlled by stronger, more physical secondaries but has still sparked an offensive surge. Let’s put it this way: Even bad defenses slowed Missouri down last year.
Meanwhile, the Missouri defense has been more problematic than anyone anticipated. It’s not awful by any means, but it was pushed around by both West Virginia and LSU, and five games into the season we’re still seeing quite a few missed assignments and missed tackles.
We know this year’s issues; let’s quickly take a look at what strengths and weaknesses we might be looking at in 2017. And then we’ll get back to 2016.
Drew Lock still has some growing to do, as we saw in Baton Rouge. But he’s on pace for 4,000 passing yards, and he’s a true sophomore. He’ll be back in 2017 and should be one of the SEC’s best.
Because of Alex Ross’s nagging injury, we’ve primarily seen junior Ish Witter and true freshman Damarea Crockett at running back. Crockett still has work to do from the perspective of ball handling and pass protection, but he has shown flashes of brilliance. He doesn’t have the most dynamite fifth gear in the world, but oh well. He appears to have the tools to become quite the complete back. The question is how quickly does he get there? 2018? 2017? November 2016?
2017 potential strength.
The receiving corps has had three great games and two terrible ones. As with Drew Lock, the growth isn’t complete yet. But we’ve seen far more potential in five games this year than we saw in 12 a year ago, and the only senior receivers involved are Chris Black and former walk-on Eric Laurent.
J’Mon Moore will be a senior, Emanuel Hall, Ray Wingo, and Keyon Dilosa will be juniors, and Johnathan Johnson and Dimetrios Mason will be sophomores. Plus, receiver looks like perhaps the strength of the 2017 recruiting class; Mizzou has commitments from four-star DaRon Davis and high-three-star Jafar Armstrong and appears to be in excellent shape with blue-chipper Jeff Thomas.
(And I haven’t even mentioned Nate Brown, who’s missed the first five games with injury.)
I’ve been wrong before, but I would be shocked if this wasn’t one of the best receiving corps in the SEC next year.
Sean Culkin was maybe Missouri’s best player in Baton Rouge, and he’s a senior. But with Culkin struggling with injury, Jason Reese and Kendall Blanton have also seen extensive playing time, and freshmen Brendan Scales and Albert Okwuegbunam wait in reserve. There is potential here, and I doubt there’s a drop-off post-Culkin. I can’t call this unit a strength, necessarily, but it probably won’t be a weakness.
2017 ... neutrality.
Mizzou was forced to replace every starter from last year’s struggling line and still hasn’t generated a ton of traction in the run game. But the only senior involved is backup Michael Stannard, and pass protection is already a major strength (thanks in part to scheme). All five starters will return in 2017, and three of this year’s five will return in 2018, too. I don’t know what the upside is here, but the floor is higher than we feared.
This has been a confusing year up front. Charles Harris leads the nation in almost plays but has really only done damage in one game. Meanwhile, gap control has been a major issue for a unit used to primarily pinning its ears back and attacking under its previous coach.
Mizzou will have to replace Harris (probably), Rickey Hatley, and Josh Augusta in 2017. Obviously Terry Beckner Jr. still has a world of potential, and experienced pieces like Marcell Frazier, Jordan Harold, A.J. Logan, and Spencer Williams will all return. And maybe someone like Nate Howard or Josh Moore will be ready for a breakthrough. Still, this unit has gone from guaranteed strength to “Maybe it will be okay?” That’s ... surprising. That Mizzou appears to be going after a few JUCO defensive linemen probably tells you something, too.
I’ve been excited about the potential of this unit for years. That optimism will be tested in 2017. Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom will be gone, which means improvement is far from guaranteed. But Joey Burkett, Brandon Lee, and Terez Hall will all be back, and the staff felt good enough about the upside of freshmen Cale Garrett and (evidently) Trey Baldwin to tear off the redshirts of both. Garrett has already basically become Scherer’s heir apparent in the middle. And outside of WR, I’m more excited about LB than any other position in the 2017 signing class. I’m sticking with optimism here even though it’s not guaranteed.
2017 potential strength.
Hmm. Aarion Penton and John Gibson will be gone, leaving seniors-to-be Logan Cheadle and Anthony Hines and sophomores-to-be TJ Warren, DeMarkus Acy, and Christian Holmes. Acy and Holmes both have a lot of upside, and Warren was projected as a starter until getting dragged down by injury. So maybe things will be fine, at least from an upside standpoint. But losing Penton means losing maybe your best 2016 defender.
2017 question mark.
Both Anthony Sherrils and Thomas Wilson have had their moments of quality and breakdowns in 2016. Before the season, Sherrils’ athletic potential created buzz that he might go pro after 2016; at this moment, I doubt he’s shown enough to pull that off. That could change, but I’ll expect him back in 2017 for now.
Mizzou is scheduled to return Sherrils and Wilson, plus juniors-to-be Cam Hilton and Greg Taylor, sophomore-to-be Ronnell Perkins, and Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett. Despite inconsistency this year, I’m pretty optimistic here. If the cornerback position holds up, so, too, will safety.
2017 potential strength.
So that’s two strengths, a potential strength, and two decent units on offense, and two potential strengths, a neutrality, and a question mark on defense. That’s probably pretty much the opposite of what we all expected.
We’ve still got plenty to track in 2016, but considering who’s leaving at the end of the season, here are five players to keep extra close track of when it comes to prospects for 2017: Damarea Crockett, Kendall Blanton, Spencer Williams, Terez Hall, and DeMarkus Acy. (The obvious sixth is Drew Lock, but ... that was too obvious.) If we see these five making more plays over the second half of the season, 2017 will be setting up pretty nicely.
Alright, back to 2016.