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Missouri’s freshmen are making their presence felt

The Tigers’ first-year players are contributing in meaningful ways, even if the stats don’t always pop off the page.

Missouri v Vanderbilt Photo by Johnnie Izquierdo/Getty Images

Missouri’s 2023 recruiting class was nobody’s definition of program-altering. The Tigers were able to net four 4-star recruits — an objectively good haul — but the class lacked the same amount of depth Eli Drinkwitz was able to reel in over the past few years. The end result was the 33rd-rated recruiting class nationally by Rivals. This was coming off the heels of two classes that ranked among the top 20 nationally by Rivals.

That “down” class is providing exactly what the Tigers needed through the first six weeks of the season.

Team building is hard. Program building is even harder. It requires patience, preparation and a whole lot of luck. Even the best coaches in the world get it wrong the majority of the time in recruiting. It’s important to have a system, but if that system doesn’t produce the results you’re looking for, it’s time to adjust.

The Tigers seem to have a pretty good system in place when it comes to building the roster.

Drinkwitz and his staff spent much of the first few seasons on campus building the foundation. How can this team get better quickly? The goal — from the outside looking in — appeared to be to get back to respectability as quickly as humanly possible. Winning some games would help in recruiting, and improved recruiting would help win even more games. Simple fix, right?

Well, maybe. Unless you miss at quarterback. Year one was adding depth to the roster. That required a ton of transfers. Year two was about developing some of the talent that was already on campus. Year three was about fixing the defense in any way possible. Year four has been about filling in the holes.

The foundation is already in place. Missouri has at least one blue-chip recruit at every position group other than cornerback. More than a quarter of the players on the roster are former blue-chip recruits. This isn’t the type of roster one would expect to compete for national championships, but by recruiting standards, it’s the most talented roster the Tigers have fielded... well, ever.

Different rosters require different contributions from young players. It’s rare we see true freshmen walk onto a competitive roster and start right away. But asking a true freshman to fit a very specific role within the framework of the team? That’s much more manageable.

The best coaches in the world don’t want to know what a player can’t do. They want to know what a player can do. Why? Because if you know what a player is capable of doing, you know where that player can succeed, and how he can help you win. That’s been the model for Mizzou in 2023. Tell me what a freshman can do, and we’ll have him do exclusively that.

Marquis Johnson might be the best example of this. Johnson has fewer than 20 offensive snaps in every game this season, but he has a VERY clear and defined role. When he comes on the field, it’s like a shooter in basketball. Everyone should be shouting “ALERT! ALERT! 17 GOING DEEP!” It won’t matter, of course. Because he’s so damn fast that he outruns even the best corners he’s facing. Johnson has caught five of the six targets that were thrown his way at least 20 yards down the field. Those five receptions have gained 232 yards and three touchdowns. There are only 12 power five receivers who have gained more yards on deep targets this season than Johnson. His 83 percent catch rate on deep passes is tied for the best among power five receivers with at least five deep targets this season.

This is what it should look like when a team finds a role for a true freshman, defines it for the player, and the player goes out and executes that role to perfection. Here’s the thing — he’s not alone. This has been a class full of role players, and they’re all seemingly taking pride in filling their respective roles.

Let’s go through a few of the others:

  • Brett Norfleet - Season-high 43 snaps against Kentucky. He’s caught 9 of his 10 targets for 104 yards and a touchdown. Caught all four passes on which he was targeted for 40 yards against Kentucky
  • Jordon Harris - 45 total snaps offensively this season, with 39 coming as an extra blocker. He’s also a core special teamer with 77 snaps on special teams — including kick return, punt return and the field goal unit.
  • Daniel Blood - 23 total offensive snaps this season, including 17 pass snaps. Caught his first pass on a big third down last week.
  • Marvin Burks - 67 total defensive snaps this season. He’s been credited for five “stops,” according to Pro Football Focus. He’s also a core special teamer, participating on kick return, kick coverage, punt return, punt coverage and field goal block at times this season.
  • Phillip Roche - 11 total defensive snaps this season. He came in for two snaps against Kentucky, coming away with a sack and a forced fumble. He’s another core special teamer this year, posting 37 special teams snaps on kick coverage, punt return and kick return.
  • Brayshawn Littlejohn - 31 special teams snaps this season on kick return, kick coverage and punt return.

This has not been the “sexy” class from years past. It doesn’t have a Luther Burden III, a Sam Horn, a Tyler Macon or a Travion Ford. But what it does have is some really darn good football players who have found success in specific, defined roles.

I have grown frustrated in previous seasons by the Tigers’ unwillingness to get young players on the field. That’s gone by the wayside in 2023. Missouri’s coaches have been creative in finding roles and filling them with young players in order to get the best out of those players, and to set those players up for success in future years when more is asked of them. Getting a taste of the speed and skill of SEC football is helpful in the development of any young player.

This freshman class might not have come in with the accolades of previous years, but the players are quickly making a name for themselves.