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Three Missouri football story lines to watch in 2016

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Missouri’s defensive line, youth movement, and quarterback battle feature prominently in Barry Odom’s first year.

Tennessee v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Missouri's season opener against West Virginia is less than a week away. We've speculated about depth charts and who will play; we've gone game by game to predict how Missouri will fare in 2016. But what will some of the common topics of discussion be during the season?

Let me know in the comments if there are others to be considered.

D-Line Zou and the hunt for 15

The pursuit of Missouri’s single-season sack record, currently at 14.5 and held by Shane Ray, is a goal Charles Harris has publicly announced. Harris does not strike me as a man who makes empty promises. How plausible is it? Since 2012, only six players -- Washington's Hau'oli Kikaha (19), Utah's Nate Orchard (18), Louisville's Marcus Smith (16), Penn State's Carl Nassib (16), Arizona's Scooby Wright III (15), and Stanford's Trent Murphy (15) have recorded more than 14 sacks in a season.

It’s more than the production of one player, though. In the two years Missouri appeared in SEC Championship Game, the Tigers notched an SEC-best 40+ sacks from "D-Line Zou." If Missouri wants to return, replicating those numbers seem to be a good first step. If Harris hits 15, that leaves 25 sacks to divvy among the remaining Tiger defenders, and that’s without dismissed Freshman All-American Walter Brady’s production.

Missouri sacked its way to Atlanta in 2013 and 2014, but only had 26 in 2015.

But maybe that’s missing the point. As we know, tackles for a loss (TFLs) are almost as important. Shane Ray had 22 in the same season he set Missouri’s sack record. Since 2012, only 10 players have recorded more than 22 TFLs in a season: Wright (31), Pitt's Aaron Donald (28), Kikaha (25), Clemson's Shaq Lawson (24), Georgia's Jarvis Jones (24), Clemson's Kevin Dodd (24), Stanford's Trent Murphy (24), Ohio State's Ryan Shazier (24), South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney (24), and Arizona State's Will Sutton (24), who notably was coached by new defensive line coach Jackie Shipp.

Both Charles Harris and Rickey Hatley have stated Jackie Shipp’s emphasis has been on playing the run first, as opposed to Craig Kuligowski’s pass-rush first philosophy. That brings us to the bigger picture: How will Missouri handle the loss of Kuligowski? Everyone has been quick to point to Shipp’s track record, DeMontie Cross’ pedigree and Barry Odom’s background, but Missouri was making a name for itself with defensive linemen in the "Line of Scrimmage League" SEC. Will the nascent "D-Line Zou" tradition, coined by Markus Golden just two years ago, be upheld?

Fresh Faces

Optimism is high for a bounce-back, bowl-eligible season based on a new-found toughness and "Show Me" mentality. But up to 10 freshman could play in 2016. What does it say about Missouri’s identity, specifically the offense, that Barry Odom felt the need to infuse it with so much new talent?

The offensive line is admittedly thin due to departures and injuries, but starting a true freshman like Tre’Vour Simms at some point is very real possibility and highlights struggles Missouri has had in recruiting and development.

Freshman runner Damarea Crockett is wowing everyone with his size and speed, and Odom has said he will play in 2016. Early-enrollee Cale Garrett has practically locked down Michael Scherer’s backup linebacker spot, and Terez Hall was briefly starting over senior Donavin Newsom during the spring. Receiver Dimetrios Mason has almost made fans forget about last year’s sleeper pick Johnathan Johnson.

Combine that with the tall expectations for redshirt freshman receiver Justin Smith, and it seems to underscore the uncertainty of the entire receiving corps. Was TJ Warren’s promotion up the depth chart really, like Hall's, a message to older, more experienced cornerbacks?

Those aren't the only newcomers who will see the field. Sure, Tyler Howell was a JUCO holdover from last year, but he will likely be the starting left tackle after only joining the team in January. The first grad transfers in Missouri football history, receiver Chris Black, running back Alex Ross, and lineman Michael Stannard, all hope to upgrade talent as well as leadership. Meanwhile, JUCO newcomers Nate Strong, Kyle Mitchell, and receiver Dominic Collins may be called upon for heavy contributions.

Few seem willing to say it, but Missouri would appear to be in the midst of a rebuilding season. There are just seven seniors slated to start, only three on offense, and Sean Culkin is the only four-year Tiger of that group. Granted, guys like cornerback John Gibson, nose tackle Josh Augusta or receiver Eric Laurent could be listed as starters against West Virginia, but they all figure to be used in heavy rotation. Typically, Missouri’s best teams came with rosters full of upperclassmen. How quickly will the youth movement develop to its potential?

Lock vs. Zanders

You’ve probably already heard the talk about how much Marvin Zanders has improved since last year. He’s put on good weight and improved his mechanics, and the new offensive scheme might complement his skills. There’s the ever-present talk of "special packages" and trick plays and situational reps that comes whenever a team has two unique quarterback talents on the roster.

At the very least, we expect Zanders to get playing time this fall. The coaching staff has practically guaranteed it, with Odom insisting even on the last day of fall camp that he hasn’t named a starter.

Drew Lock would appear to be the prototypical quarterback: good size, strong arm, accuracy on the move, not a statue in the pocket. Marvin Zanders would appear to be the prototypical dual-threat quarterback: blazing speed, a natural running the zone-read, capable of making the short and intermediate throws and launching deep bombs to receivers on play-action fakes, but questionable accuracy.

I’m all for competition, especially at the quarterback position for an offense that was historically bad. Josh Heupel has to be salivating at the potential available to him here. Lock strikes me as the kind of QB who can fit into any scheme, while I think Heupel will need to make more adjustments for Zanders’ skill set. The backup quarterback is usually the most popular guy on the team; if Lock isn’t taking charge and hasn’t shown significant growth, how long do fans and coaches wait before calling for change?