On paper, the 2016 Missouri football team was bound to be a tough nut to crack. Following two Southeastern Conference East Division titles, was the 2015 teamâ€™s 5-7 campaign a fluke or a sign of what the status quo will be for Missouri in the SEC?
But throw in a new coaching regime, a string of player departures and restricted media access under new head coach Barry Odom, and there are more questions now than ever. Missouriâ€™s Black and Gold Scrimmage on Saturday provided some answers, but thereâ€™s still plenty that remains undetermined as the Tigers shut the door on spring camp.
The Big Question: What exactly is it going to look like?
If coach Odomâ€™s motive for keeping eyes away from the Tigers this spring was to prevent anyone from getting a sense of his offensive tendencies, mission accomplished. With offensive coordinator Josh Henson gone after a dreadful 2015 season and former Oklahoma and Utah State coordinator Josh Heupel taking the reins, itâ€™s hard to say exactly what Missouriâ€™s offense is going to look like â€” especially given Odomâ€™s defensive-heavy resume.
But the buzzword of spring camp was â€œtempo.â€
â€œThe tempo coming out of the huddle is a little bit different than maybe what has been done,â€ Odom said. â€œPlaying with some urgency and some tempo. Trying to get the play off a little bit quicker. So changing our tempo some has helped.â€
The tempo wasnâ€™t noticeably different in the spring game. Is that just a matter of more time being needed to get up to speed? And, oh yeah, does Missouri even have enough talent on offense to manufacture a bounceback season?
The Big Question: Why wonâ€™t Missouri admit Drew Lock is the starter?
Lock came in as a true freshman last season and impressed in fall camp. When Maty Mauk was suspended, Lock took over and started the final eight games of the season. It wasnâ€™t pretty by any means. Lock completed just 48 percent of his passes as a starter and Missouri went 2-6.
â€œI tend to not watch the filmâ€ from last season, Lock said. â€œWe watch the flash tape and Iâ€™m like, â€˜I do not want to watch this play, skip to the next one.â€™â€
Still, Lock was just a freshman and fellow quarterbacks Marvin Zanders and Jack Lowary have nowhere near as much game experience. But the coaching staff has been very careful to avoid calling Lock the starting quarterback and, in fact, has refused to say he even has a head-start on the job.
Does Lock himself know what the depth chart is?
â€œItâ€™s understood in my head, weâ€™ll put it that way,â€ he said.
Diplomacy aside, Lock took most of the first-team reps Saturday and his offensive teammates refer to him as if he is the assumed starter. In the fleeting moments that quarterbacks have been open to the eye test, Lock has looked strong.
â€œHeâ€™s more confident,â€ linebacker Michael Scherer said of Lock. â€œThe kid came in and could wing the ball a mile. He could hit whoever he wanted to hit. And then as he got in games and had more pressure on him and got less confident, he started not believing in himself.
â€œNow he really believes in himself and that kid is really good. I thought he was really good last fall when he came in for fall camp. He was dicing us up. And now that heâ€™s got his confidence back, and he knows what heâ€™s doing, heâ€™s something to mess with, Iâ€™ll tell you that.â€
So why all the smoke and mirrors? For one, Odom seems to favor the â€œall jobs are openâ€ philosophy as a means of breeding competition. Missouri needs a solid backup with Mauk gone for good and backup Eddie Printz transferred. Zanders could figure into the offense in some way, even if not as QB1 â€” perhaps as a wildcat option.
And after Lock was thrown into the fire last season, itâ€™s likely Odom wants to avoid putting any undue pressure on the Bieber-banged wonder. In fact, Lock wasnâ€™t made available to the media all spring until after the Black and Gold Game.
The Big Question: Are the bodies there?
Missouriâ€™s offensive line struggled throughout last season and the Tigers have lost five seniors since, including Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern, who will both likely be selected in the upcoming NFL Draft. And to make matters worse, injuries and off-field factors had Missouri down to eight scholarship offensive linemen available this spring. Lock said he calls them â€œThe Elite Eight,â€ and there is some hope the added practice could pay off come fall.
â€œThe positive is, theyâ€™ve basically been getting a ton of reps,â€ Heupel said, â€œand itâ€™s helped push them to a greater understanding, more reps, getting better fundamentally and getting better in the things that weâ€™re asking them to do. Itâ€™s been difficult, but itâ€™s also going to help those eight, nine guys in the long run.â€
The Tigers better hope thatâ€™s true. Theyâ€™d also better hope Nate Crawford returns strong from his back surgery and that incoming freshmen Treâ€™vour Simms and Trystan Castillo are ready to play.
The Big Question: Is Ish Witter ready to be a lead running back â€” and will he have to?
Ish Witter, a junior, got his fair share of playing time last season with team captain Russell Hansbrough missing time to injury. Still, he didnâ€™t strike most as the second coming of Henry Josey.
But heâ€™s drawn rave reviews for his offseason improvement â€” most notably his healthier physique and his improved ability to stay off the turf. As it stands, Witter is easily the most experienced tailback â€” the Tigers had just four available for most of camp â€” and would presumably be the clear starter among the current field.
â€œI think he saw himself doing things (this spring) that he physically maybe could not or wouldnâ€™t do a year ago,â€ Heupel said. â€œHeâ€™s starting to make very good, decisive, fast vertical cuts. Heâ€™s running with a great physical presence, finishing runs and gaining an extra yard or two.â€
However, the Tigers have two larger backs on their way: junior-college transfer Nate Strong and four-star high-school signee Damarea Crockett. They will likely see playing time one way or another in their first seasons at Missouri.
â€œTheyâ€™ve got the message that I expect them all to come in and play,â€ Odom said. â€œI donâ€™t want them to have the mindset that theyâ€™re going to sit there and eat popcorn on the sidelines.â€
The only question is where Witter fits.
The Big Question: Just how good are the newbies?
Missouriâ€™s receiving group struggled mightily last season. Then again, so did the whole offense. But there is some room for optimism among the receiving corps. The only departure from last season is Wesley Leftwich. He was the teamâ€™s third-leading receiver in 2015 but never saw much playing time until his senior season.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have gained a senior in Alabama graduate transfer Chris Black. He exited the spring game early because of a lingering ankle injury, and it still remains unknown if he can be a go-to receiver for the Tigers â€” if theyâ€™ll even have a go-to receiver. Still, his experience should be a plus.
The other additions who could make a big difference are Justin Smith, Jonathon Johnson and Richaud Floyd, who are coming off their redshirt season. The 6-foot-7 Smith brings some much-needed size, which he displayed by snagging a jump-ball touchdown Saturday. Johnson looked like he might have contributed last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Floyd has impressed in the slot this spring, which earned him reps with the first team in the spring game. He also scored a touchdown in the scrimmage.
â€œI think weâ€™ve made a lot of strides on the perimeter in one-on-one situations, going up and competing and attacking the football and making more competitive plays,â€ Heupel said. â€œWe were a long ways off at the beginning of spring ball. Weâ€™ve gotten better since we came back from spring break. It was great to see some of our guys make those plays (Saturday).â€
The Big Question: Will they get to catch the ball?
Missouri returns its tight end duo of Jason Reese and senior Sean Culkin, who dubbed themselves â€œ1080pâ€ ahead of last season because of their high-definition hopes for the year. (And the fact that their numbers are 10 and 80, respectively.)
Though with No. 11 Kendall Blanton ready to contribute more as a redshirt sophomore, a new nickname might be in order.
â€œWe can do 108011p,â€ Culkin said with a laugh.
The senior has been impressed with Blantonâ€™s development in both the weight room and the film rrom.
â€œYou can see heâ€™s starting to expand in that area,â€ Culkin said. â€œAnd now itâ€™s starting to carry over on the field. Heâ€™s a guy with a lot of upside, and Iâ€™m excited for him.â€
Missouri now has a tight end coach in Joe Jon Finley whose duties wonâ€™t be split between position coach and coordinator; Henson was the tight end coach last season.
There are plans to use the tight ends in a variety of ways on offense, but that was the talk last year, too, and Culkin and Reese had just 16 and 15 catches, respectively. And with such attrition up front, will the tight ends become de facto offensive linemen?
The Big Question: How much has changed under DeMontie Cross?
You would think thereâ€™d be little to question on defense, given Missouriâ€™s success on that side of the ball in 2015 â€” sixth in the nation in yards allowed per game â€” and the fact that all but three starters are returning. Still, with Odom being promoted from defensive coordinator to head coach and TCU co-defensive coordinator Cross taking his place, nothing is certain.
While the Tigersâ€™ success last season might make it seem logical for Odom to leave his fingerprints on the defense, it appears Cross is in the driverâ€™s seat.
â€œI donâ€™t ever want them to feel like Iâ€™m looking over their shoulder,â€ Odom said of his coordinators.
Defensive players have certainly noticed the difference under Cross.
â€œItâ€™s very intense,â€ said linebacker Joey Burkett, a Jefferson City High School graduate. â€œThatâ€™s all Iâ€™m going to say. Itâ€™s a lot of fun. Very intense. Started out, it was going 100 miles an hour, and we slowed it down, learned it. It was a whole new kind of system, but we figured it out and weâ€™re playing well.â€
It wasnâ€™t broke, but Cross, Missouriâ€™s third defensive coordinator in three seasons, appears to be trying to fix Missouriâ€™s defense. Either way, the talent should be there.
The Big Question: Will everyone be back?
As has become the norm, Missouriâ€™s defensive line was nasty last season, with ends Charles Harris and Walter Brady recording seven sacks apiece, Terry Beckner Jr. earning freshman all-American honors and Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta plugging up the middle. Plus, freshman Nate Howard and sophomore Marcell Frazier provided solid depth and Missouri was slated to get back fifth-year senior Harold Brantley after a season spent recovering from injuries suffered in a car accident.
But Beckner is still recovering from an ACL injury and Harris and Howard missed extended time in camp after undergoing surgery.
Thatâ€™s not to mention Brantley, whose future remains uncertain as he missed spring camp for academic reasons.
â€œIf he can finish the way that he needs to academically, then absolutely (I expect him to return to the team),â€ Odom said. â€œâ€¦ When you get that old in college, thereâ€™s certain criteria that youâ€™ve got to hit on the number of hours. So weâ€™re working with him daily to try to get that done.â€
Whatâ€™s more, Brady left the game Saturday after appearing to injure his knee.
â€œA pit in my stomach dropped,â€ Cross said. â€œLike anything else with any kid out there, but when youâ€™ve got one of your starters going down like that, itâ€™s never good. So hopefully itâ€™s nothing serious, and we can get him back this summer and get him ready for our season opener.â€
If everyone is back and healthy, Missouriâ€™s defensive line should be one of the best in the country next season. And if not? Well, it should still be pretty darn good.
The Big Question: How do you replace Kentrell Brothers?
One of three starters gone to graduation is weak-side linebacker Brothers, who had more tackles than any player in the country last season.
â€œYou donâ€™t lose a guy like Brothers and expect a guy to come in and replace him right away,â€ Cross said. â€œBut if we can do it by committee â€” which itâ€™ll probably take two guys to amass the amount of tackles that heâ€™s had over the last couple years, but as long as guys are doing their job, their assignment within the scheme, Iâ€™m happy.â€
Burkett is currently atop the depth chart at the weak side, Cross said, and Brandon Lee, Trey Baldwin and Terez Hall could figure in, among others. Even if they do make up for the tackles, though, Brothersâ€™ expertise from a strategic standpoint will be missed.
Luckily for the Tigers, they still have Scherer, Brothersâ€™ right-hand man in racking up tackles the past few seasons. Heâ€™s had to take on an added load with Brothers gone and a new defense implemented.
â€œIâ€™ve got to know what everybodyâ€™s got to do on the field,â€ Scherer said. â€œDo I have to? No. But I need to, when â€¦ Iâ€™m the older one. Theyâ€™re going to turn around and look at me. So if I donâ€™t know, then they canâ€™t trust me.
â€œSo Iâ€™ve got to know everybodyâ€™s role, and thatâ€™s been a little difficult, because Iâ€™m trying to learn my stuff, too. But I think we really caught onto it towards the end of spring ball.â€
The Biggest question: Who will take the team captainsâ€™ places?
Team captain Ian Simon is another departed senior. Simon started at free safety and his backup, Cortland Browning, was a senior as well. That job is still there for the taking, with junior Thomas Wilson and sophomore Cam Hilton in competition for the job. Hilton switched to defense after playing receiver as a true freshman.
â€œThereâ€™s a position battle everywhere,â€ safeties coach Ryan Walters said. â€œAnthony Sherrils is not safe. Thomas Wilson is not safe. Cam Hilton is not safe. Thereâ€™s a long time before we play a game, and those four guys â€” Anthony, Thomas, Cam and (redshirt freshman) Ronnell (Perkins) are doing a great job.â€
Assuming his job isnâ€™t truly in jeopardy, Sherrils is set for a big junior season at safety.
â€œHeâ€™s so athletic,â€ Walters said. â€œHe makes up for a lot of mistakes early on. And so Iâ€™m just trying to get him to maximize his athletic nature so that heâ€™s making more plays. Heâ€™s making plays, but he can be making a lot more, so Iâ€™ve just got to get him consistent.â€
Starting cornerback Kenya Dennis was also a team captain last season, and thatâ€™s another position up for the taking. While senior John Gibson and juniors Logan Cheadle and Anthony Hines presumably had a head start on the spot, it was redshirt freshman T.J. Warren who got the start Saturday.
â€œThat kid, he just continued to show up,â€ Cross said. â€œHe worked hard, and heâ€™s making plays.â€
The Big Question: Howâ€™s Tucker McCannâ€™s leg?
Missouri saw one true freshman specialist come in and make a splash last season; Corey Fatony earned the job as punter and subsequently booted more punts in one season than any Tiger had before.
Missouri is hoping for a repeat performance as signee McCann looks to step into the kicking spot held by Andrew Baggett the last four seasons. The Tigers probably wouldnâ€™t mind if he set the single-season field goal record.
Missouriâ€™s return team, which clearly missed graduated all-American Marcus Murphy last season, saw Black and Finis Stribling IV start on kickoffs and Aarion Penton on punts Saturday.