Bill: Alright, Jack. We've winnowed our way through spring ball, and we've watched Saturday's Black and Gold Game. Let's talk offense!
I'm semi-optimistic about this season in general, simply because a) Mizzou's going to have a good defense again and b) regression to the mean should help the Tiger offense . Good defense + mediocre offense = decent team. Easy enough. But let's talk about who we think will actually be playing for this mediocre (or better!) offense.
Here are my own thoughts about what the two-deep might look like at the skill positions (and the tight end positions ... I'm never quite clear if they count as "skill positions" or not) in the Week 1:
QB: Drew Lock, Marvin Zanders
RB: Ish Witter, Nate Strong
WR-X: J'Mon Moore, Emanuel Hall
WR-Z: Nate Brown, Keyon Dilosa
SLOT: Chris Black, Ray Wingo
TE: Sean Culkin, Jason Reese
HB: Sean Culkin, Brendan Scales
This is not the most daring take in the world, but before I go into detail, tell me where and why I'm wrong.
Jack: The way things are looking at the moment, the most daring thing you could feasibly get away with would probably be a demotion for Ish Witter. Everyone else seems to have a firm grasp on their starting position. Even their backups look pretty well entrenched. I would love to argue that players like Richaud Floyd, Johnathon Johnson, and Justin Smith are all on the cusp of breaking into the two-deep, but there's not much concrete evidence to go on at this point beyond a Spring Game that Odom all but told us was entirely a ruse.
Also, you could tell me pretty much any player was the starting HB and I would believe you. Culkin? Love it. He's big and athletic and can create match-up nightmares for plenty of defenses. Scales? All for it, for mostly the same reasons. Depending on how Josh Heupel wants to utilize the position I could see someone like Ray Wingo or Johnathon Johnson getting the nod, but, again, we know nothing.
So we're looking at an extremely similar offense to the one that Mizzou fielded last year. That's... good? Experience plus fun new offense equals improvement, right? Please tell me that's right.
Oscar Gambler: Having watched spring practices and the spring game I'd argue that Mizzou's wide receiving corps is getting a bit of a shake up. I couldn't help but notice that Nate Brown was the primary X receiver and Keyon Dilosa was the primary Z receiver. J'Mon Moore didn't see the field until the second quarter when Drew Lock tried to hit him on a deep shot and then wasn't targeted again until the 64 yard score where John Gibson let him run free. Bama grad transfer Chris Black only saw three plays after going out because of a foot injury but I think Richaud Floyd is a strong option in the slot and he showed as much by scoring the first touchdown on Saturday.
Ish Witter ran better than Trevon Walters and Ryan Williams on Saturday although that may be in part due to nagging injuries Williams' suffered the week before. Witter looked more decisive running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield but still didn't impress me once he got to the second level. Witter will begin the fall as the #1 back but I maintain if both Nate Strong and Damarea Crockett show up and are in shape he could lose his spot.
I don't think any skill position is locked down except for the two; Drew Lock is head and shoulders above his quarterback competition; Sean Culkin and Jason Reese have settled into a rotation at the tight end/h-back spot.
Bill: Since we haven't touched on the line yet, I could certainly make the case that a status quo of sorts is okay. Witter, Brown, Moore ... they have all shown potential and could simply grow with time for growth.
Obviously Strong or Crockett could come in and knock everybody's socks off now at RB and steal Witter's job, but honestly, I'm pretty sure he's going to be the starter. I think there's still room for movement at WR, though. Black's in (and good lord, I hope he can stay healthy ... it's been an issue over the last 12 months), but between the sophomores (Dilosa, Hall, Wingo, Blair), the redshirt freshmen (Johnson, Smith, Floyd), and the simple fact that neither Brown nor Moore seized "three-year starter" rights last year, I could see that being a pretty fluid situation. I went with Wingo above, but Wingo ... Floyd ... Johnson ... a lot of options there. I feel more confident in Dilosa and Hall ending up on the second string than Wingo. (And I might have simply picked Wingo because I saw him touch the ball twice at the spring game. Recency bias and all that.)
Alright, so uh, then there's the line. I guess we have to touch on that since it's kind of the make-or-break unit for Mizzou this year. If Nate Crawford is healthy, I assume we end up with something like this:
LT: Tyler Howell, Tanner Owen
LG: Nate Crawford, AJ Harris
C: Alec Abeln, Samson Bailey
RG: Kevin Pendleton, Adam Ploudre
RT: Paul Adams, Tyrell Jacobs
That's eight scholarship OLs, a walk-on, and a defensive tackle. Gulp. Obviously Trystan Castillo and Tre'vour Simms could play a role, as could a 2016 signee who doesn't actually exist yet. But counting chickens, etc.
And if Crawford misses time because of his back issues (which we know are never lingering and never cause long-term issues, ahem), then uh ... Bailey at center, Abeln at RG, and prayer?
Tell me why this line will be okay, please.
Jack: The line will be okay because they fared reasonably well against a less-than-full-strength-but-still-quite-potent defensive line in the spring game, and this is a result we can absolutely believe in.
Seriously though, one thing that last year's edition of the offensive line struggled with was communication. It seemed like they never quite gelled, and their performance suffered because of it. If this pre-season adversity is good for anything, it wouldn't be crazy to think that it would bring the group closer together. Lock said as much in an interview after the spring game, so it looks like it's something they're at least trying to buy in to. Whether this is just frosting on a terrible, burnt cake or some nice motivation remains to be seen, but I'll take what I can get at this point.
Another thing this unit has going for it is the fact that Heupel has historically been a bit more schematically creative than Josh Henson, which means he should be more suited to make the best of an offensive line that's failing to live up to expectations. That, and new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee has done well with young, inexperienced lines before.
We aren't working with much here, admittedly, but the glass starts to look about half full if you look at it just right.
Bill: And I guess the other good news is that, as we saw from 2012 to 2013 to 2014 to 2015, is that lines can get quite a bit better or quite a bit worse from year to year.
Oscar Gambler: We're still waiting to hear if Clay Rhodes will return to the football team, there was some rumor about it having to do with CTE but that's unconfirmed. To me, Nate Crawford is like Harold Brantley, if they're healthy that's awesome and a real bonus. I don't feel super good about Nate Crawford suddenly returning from his second back surgery so until I see him competing again I'm going to presume he's out.
That means, until we hear otherwise, Kevin Pendleton is playing left guard as he did the majority of the spring and through the entire spring game. That leaves an opening at right guard, which I see being filled by Alec Abeln, with Samson Bailey handling the center position. I rewatched the game and noticed that although there were some botched snaps they were all on target and it was actually because Drew Lock wasn't ready for them.
If AJ Harris can come back from a wrist injury he could help the interior playing his natural center role or a guard position. I still expect Tre'Vour Simms to come in and compete for at least a backup role at either guard positions, allowing Pendleton or Abeln to play their original position. The good news appears to be that Tyler Howell and Paul Adams have the tackle positions locked down.
Missouri's spring performance against a defense missing several key starters is pretty debatable. After watching the offensive line be unimpressive during last fall's camp and ignoring it I don't know if we can draw any concrete conclusions. Missouri's offensive line doesn't have many options due to a lack of depth but if healthy I do believe they have the capacity to be better than last year.