We form our preseason perceptions based mostly on knowns. We know that Missouri is pretty comfortable at running back, defensive tackle, linebacker, and cornerback because we've seen players at those positions already thriving. But the Tigers have questions to answer elsewhere on the gridiron, and if they're lucky, a youngster or newcomer will jump in to fill a potential void.
In 2013, Connor McGovern broke through and provided extra stability and strength on the offensive line, while Maty Mauk saved the Tigers' bacon when James Franklin went down, and Harold Brantley gave them more depth up front than we knew they had. In 2014, JUCO transfer Kenya Dennis turned Mizzou's cornerback depth into an extreme strength.
Who will it be in 2015?
There's no guarantee that any of the players below will experience any major success or playing time this fall, but if they did, and if they quickly become reliable regulars a la McGovern or (eventually) Dennis, it could make a particularly big impact in Mizzou's attempt at a third straight SEC East title.
10. Anthony Sherrils
The secondary seems mostly set. Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton are fantastic starting corners, and John Gibson might be the best No. 3 CB Mizzou has had under Gary Pinkel. Plus, in Ian Simon, Mizzou has an incumbent, the kind of experienced piece Pinkel loves to have in the back. But the other safety position is still a bit of a question mark.
I'm counting Anthony Sherrils as a "newcomer" here because he's new in the way that Kentrell Brothers was in 2013, or Donavin Newsom was in 2014 -- he made an impact on special teams as a redshirt freshman but didn't really see the field on defense. With Cortland Browning hurt, he was listed as a starter this spring and seemed to acquit himself just fine. If his on-field know-how matches his blazing speed, Mizzou's secondary is more than set.
(You could put another younger player like Thomas Wilson or T.J. Warren here, too, if you want.)
9. Terry Beckner Jr.
Mizzou has barely any depth at the defensive end position but has a lot of potential mismatches to establish with quicker tackles like Harold Brantley and Rickey Hatley at the "tackle and occasional 3-4 DE" position. The Tigers also have the top defensive line prospect in the country coming to town. If his "oak tree with quick feet" routine finds success early in his freshman year, then Mizzou should have more than enough mismatches to do damage up front even if (when) there's a drop-off at the end position.
8. Johnathon Johnson or Richaud Floyd
Mizzou's going to need at least one true freshman receiver to establish himself in the rotation from Day 1. Maybe Justin Smith's 6'7 frame gives him an advantage, or maybe Emanuel Hall, thought to be the most immediately well-rounded of the signees, finds traction. I'm listing Floyd and Johnson here for one simple reason: they're different than the other weapons. Mizzou has big, tall guys like Nate Brown (6'3, 210), J'Mon Moore (6'3, 200), DeSean Blair (6'2, 195), and Keyon Dilosa (6'3, 200) potentially ready to play a role, but Floyd (5'11, 165) and Johnson (5'10, 175) are more of the bouncy-ball type of receiver. If one of them finds a niche, especially in the slot, then Josh Henson has some play-calling options that he really hasn't had before.
7. Tyler Howell
At 6'9, 305, he's got size that makes you say "Damn!" But you never know how quickly JUCOs will acclimate at the power-conference level, if they ever do. That Malik Cuellar was in for spring may give him a head start on Howell, but Howell's size is hypnotic, and if he's a steady tackle from Day 1, and Connor McGovern is able to play guard (his strongest position), this line starts to become a major strength.
6. Kendall Blanton
We've heard about this guy's upside from the moment he showed up in Columbia last year. At 6'7, 245, he's got length and potential that maybe none of the other tight ends do, but he hasn't put it all together yet. With WR a potentially questionable position, getting production from three different tight ends (Sean Culkin, Jason Reese, and Blanton) would be a welcome bonus.
5. Ray Wingo
He's got blazing speed and was caught in a logjam at cornerback. It appears Gary Pinkel would PREFER to have him at CB, but sometimes necessity makes your decisions for you. Wingo looked pretty good at WR considering he was dropped into the position mid-spring, and because of his speed, he might be the most likely big-play threat amongst a glut of redshirt freshmen.
4. Walter Brady
We've heard countless plaudits about his motor, and we can't help but notice there's an opening in the starting lineup following Marcus Loud's dismissal. If this two-star redshirt freshman wanted to take after a certain other two-star, high-motor guy (whose name rhymes with Schmychal Fam), no one would complain. Mizzou doesn't need the senior version of Schmychal Fam, only the redshirt freshman or sophomore version.
(I'm putting Brady here because we heard the most good things about him this spring, but the same obviously goes for the other redshirt freshmen, Rocel McWilliams and Spencer Williams. Incoming freshman Nate Howard, too, for that matter.)
3. Chase Abbington
At 6'2, 220 or so, the four-star JUCO signee is not shaped like any of Mizzou's other running backs (at least until/unless Morgan Steward is able to play a role), and his general athleticism could end up getting him some time running routes as well. He might be a man without a position, and he might be exactly what the offense needs.
2. Marcell Frazier
A speedy JUCO transfer with more experience than the glut of freshmen and redshirt freshmen, Frazier has a MASSIVE opportunity to step right into the starting lineup thanks to Loud's departure. He knows it, too. Can he take advantage, or will he get passed up by a younger player? Regardless, if he started producing like Mizzou's last JUCO DE (Markus Golden), no one would complain.
1. DeSean Blair
We think of Nate Brown as a known entity, which is both unfair (he has five career catches) and necessary (that's more than any other WR has). But he'll need help. Maybe he gets it from Wesley Leftwich or Ray Wingo or one of the other freshmen. But in Brown's absence, DeSean Blair had a pretty nice spring and seems to have the best current combination of polish, speed, and size. And if he's able to provide 40-50 catches this year at about 7.5 to 8 yards per target (solid but in no way great), Mizzou really could have a stable passing game. That's a lot to ask of a redshirt freshman, but it's not entirely unrealistic.