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2015 Missouri football: 9 veteran breakthrough candidates

When we talk about an upcoming season, we tend think of the juniors and seniors as known quantities and the freshmen and sophomores as the players with improvement to do. But from Michael Sam in 2013 to Bud Sasser in 2014, Mizzou tends to have a couple of late-bloomers making a huge difference. Here are nine candidates for 2015 and the difference they could make if they indeed come on strong late in their respective careers.

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9. Russell Hansbrough

(Paul Halfacre)

Does Russ have one more gear in him? Hansbrough led Mizzou with 1,084 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns a year ago, but the stats still point to potential areas of improvement. While his explosiveness ended up quite strong, his opportunity rate (percentage of carries gaining at least five yards) was 36.1%, lower than Marcus Murphy's 40.7%. Plus, in terms of receiving, Murphy trumped him in terms of catch rate (65% to 55%) and yards per target (4.9 to 2.9).

Hansbrough was prone to slumps here and there, baited into drifting toward the sideline and getting eaten up at times. He is a smooth, faster-than-he-looks back when moving north to south, but there are some inefficiencies still in his game. Does he iron them out in Year 4? He's good no matter what, but if he becomes excellent, Mizzou's offense is on much more solid ground.

8. John Gibson III

(Bill Carter)

Mizzou heads into 2015 with probably its best set of cornerbacks ever under Gary Pinkel. Kenya Dennis' rise over the second half of 2014 changed the complexion of the defense, bumped Aarion Penton to No. 2 CB, and bumped John Gibson III to No. 3.

Gibson is still a hell of an athlete and should assure Mizzou of two strong senior starters in 2016, but what if he takes another step forward, becomes a third potential No. 1 guy (like Dennis and Penton), and offers Barry Odom infinite attacking options with Gibson or the bigger Penton at nickel back? As with running back, Mizzou is set here no matter what, but Gibson still has some more work to do to reach his ceiling, and if he reaches it ... damn.

7. Wes Leftwich

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

We talk about how young the receiving corps is going to be, and with good reason. Two sophomores, any of four redshirt freshmen, and any of four true freshmen could all play key roles in the rotation, and no returning wideout caught more passes than Nate Brown's five.

But there's still a senior in the mix here, and he's a fast one at that. On September 27, Wesley Leftwich caught one of the biggest passes of the season, a 26-yarder from Maty Mauk that set up the first of two late Mizzou scores at South Carolina.

Two weeks later, with Mauk running for his life and somehow finding him open deep downfield, he dropped a likely touchdown at the end of the first half. He was not heard from the rest of the season.

Leftwich's season totals -- 10 targets, 3 catches, 36 yards -- in no way suggest that he could become a breakout star, a la Bud Sasser, in his senior season. But could he at least become something approximating Darius White (49 targets, 30 catches, 372 yards)? If nothing else, could he become a security blanket for Mauk when the freshmen are a bit out of sorts? That could mean quite a bit.

6. Sean Culkin

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

For three years now (including the 2012 season in which he redshirted), we've heard grand things about Sean Culkin in practice reports. The coaches nearly played him as a true freshman but didn't. He began the 2013 season looking like the No. 1 tight end, then got usurped by a senior (Eric Waters). He caught eight passes for 89 yards in a four-game span in September 2014 but caught just 12 passes in the other 10 games.

When it comes to hitting guys who are camped out in holes in zones, Maty Mauk isn't the most amazing passer in the world. This has hurt Culkin's production. Plus, Culkin's ability to block and play as more of a 'true' tight end is almost certainly getting understated (by me and others). But if his performance begins to match the potential we've been told he has, that's one more security blanket for an offense that needs a few.

5. Donavin Newsom

(Bill Carter)

He won the Most Improved Linebacker award in the spring, which is sometimes difficult to do when you're already a starter. He split time with Clarence Green (who also seemed to have a nice spring) last fall, but if his consistency begins to match his upside (despite ceding playing time to both Green and nickel backs, he still had 3.5 tackles for loss, three hurries, two forced fumbles, and a break-up), he could give Barry Odom quite a bit to think about. Mizzou has three potentially awesome cornerbacks and some young, athletic safeties, but a Newsom breakout might mean the nickel back stays on the sidelines a bit more.

4. Cortland Browning

(Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Remember him? The guy who started in place of a half-suspended Braylon Webb and helped to hold the Aggies to 13 first-half points until Webb could return? Mizzou has quite a few exciting, almost completely unproven young safeties -- Anthony Sherrils, Thomas Wilson, Tavon Ross (when healthy), a couple of incoming freshmen -- but the old man of the secondary still has a shot at starting opposite Ian Simon. Gary Pinkel and his staff will often value experience over upside at the safety position (think of Matt White starting in 2013, for instance), and if Browning is healthy (he wasn't this spring), he could still show enough to see the field quite a bit in 2015.

3. Taylor Chappell

(Paul Halfacre)

Or Mitch Hall. Or Brad McNulty. Mizzou has two stalwarts on the offensive line in Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern, and the Tigers are also blessed with three other seniors with starting experience. The problem is that none of those three have stood out to any degree over the last couple of seasons. With a pair of interesting JUCO transfers (Malik Cuellar, Tyler Howell) and a host of high-upside, no-experience options (Nate Crawford, Clay Rhodes, Mike Fairchild, Paul Adams, Andy Bauer, etc.), Mizzou certainly has candidates to fill in the blanks on the two-deep.

But if either Chappell, Hall, or McNulty can take a late-career step forward and lock down one of the other positions, thereby allowing A.J. Ricker to firmly establish where McGovern plays (guard or tackle) and who plays beside him, a potential weakness becomes a strength.

2. Rickey Hatley

(Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports)

Brantley and Augusta, Augusta and Brantley. We talk a lot about how much the tackle position is going to be a strength for Mizzou this year, and we've seen enough flashes out of the quick Harold Brantley and tree-sized Josh Augusta to know that we'll probably be right, especially when you throw Terry Beckner Jr. into the mix. But for much of spring ball, it wasn't Brantley and Augusta leading the stretch lines. It was Brantley and Hatley.

A 'tweener who saw time as both a big end and a quick tackle, Hatley appears to have taken a step forward since the season ended. If that step is permanent, Odom might have what he desperately needs: one more toy to play with up front. We know what Brantley and Augusta have to offer, we assume Charles Harris will play pretty well, and we assume Beckner will be a contributor sooner than later. But with the dismissal of Marcus Loud, Mizzou's in need of another starting defensive end. And in the absence of another true end, the Tigers at least need another weapon. Hatley and Brantley could both rotate in and out, and either are big enough to play end if Odom elects to go to more 3-4 looks in Loud's absence. There's a possibility that a newcomer like Marcell Frazier or a redshirt freshmen are able to step in and do some nasty things, but Hatley's sustained emergence would be wonderful.

1. Maty Mauk

(Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports)

He's 14-4 as a starting quarterback and has either helped or directly led Mizzou to two SEC East titles, so it's almost strange to think of Maty Mauk as someone in need of a breakthrough. But he still has quite a bit of potential improvement to make. Mauk has made some huge throws in his career, but the mundane plays still get away from him at times, and inefficiency made Mizzou far more reliant on big plays than it should have been.

After an incredible opening month to the season -- first 4 games: 62 percent completion rate, 12.7 yards per completion, 14 TDs, 4 INTs -- Mauk began to fall apart as his receiving corps suffered a couple of injuries. Even with the big late throws against South Carolina, Mauk completed just 27 of 73 passes (37 percent) for 249 yards, 0 TDs, and 5 INTs against South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. That Mizzou went 2-1 in that stretch was a minor miracle (and a testament to Mizzou's defensive effort), and it bought Mauk some time to make improvements.

With so many new or young receivers and tight ends playing key roles in the passing game, Mauk will have to improve just to break even in the passing game. The receiving corps has length and speed and athleticism, but it will desperately need a great leader and a consistent signal-caller. Mauk is one of the best leaders you'll find, but consistency has not yet come. There's still time. And if Mauk is able to engineer decent results from a passing game with low expectations, Mizzou's chances at a third straight SEC East title get quite a bit better.