Mizzou football, volleyball and soccer all start with winning records
Missouri’s Aarion Penton, left, celebrates with teammate Anthony Sherrils after Penton scored a touchdown during the third quarter of Saturday’s game against Southeast Missouri State. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
A few notes as Mizzou sports begin in earnest for the 2015-2016 season.
Missouri football started with a solid if not spectacular win over Southeast Missouri State. Yes, Missouri should be expected to dominate SEMO, but I was actually pretty impressed with what I saw. The offense sputtered at times, but some of the reason for that lies in injuries. Ask me to name the most irreplaceable players on this team, and I’d have named two: Evan Boehm and Russell Hansbrough, both of whom missed significant time against the Redhawks. Missouri’s offense depends on these two senior captains and hopefully their ankle injuries won’t prove to be serious.
The Tigers receivers had a couple of drops but also made some fine catches. Rather than having one great WR, the team can put three or four capable guys on the field at one time and this part of the game will continue to improve. The more this team plays the better communication and telepathy between quarterback Maty Mauk and his young batch of receivers will trend upward.
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock looks for a receiver during the second quarter. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
I fully expect to start hearing the drumbeat for more of freshman QB Drew Lock, but that’s way premature. Mauk is 15-4 as a starter and has been through the gauntlet of SEC play. Until we’ve seen how Lock responds to receiving a Malachi Crunch between two sides of beef from the Georgia defensive line, or from hearing boos when he throws a pick in the fourth quarter of a tight game, we still don’t know how he’ll handle the responsibility. But we’ve seen enough in scrimmages and the SEMO game to be very excited about the future and to understand how it is Lock jumped more experienced QBs to earn the No. 2 spot in Gary Pinkel’s depth chart. The day will come, gentle reader, when Lock is this team’s quarterback. Patience.
While the offense will be under construction for a bit, the defense can be described as very good, on the pathway to stellar. The key here is the secondary. You’ll not find a better set of corners in the SEC than Mizzou has with Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton. Experienced safeties who can cover receivers and come up and deliver a hard tackle in the run game, and plenty of quality depth at all four spots make this the strongest area of the team. That secondary and talented group of linebackers means less pressure on the defensive line. That front has to recover from losing Marcus Golden and Shane Ray to the NFL, Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent to graduation, Marcus Loud to discipline problems and Harold Brantley to an ugly car crash on Father’s Day. What’s left is testament to how well this position has been recruited, as the guys who step in like Charles Harris and Rickey Hatley continue to play very well. But one of this year’s biggest stories will be to watch Terry Beckner, Jr., the biggest recruiting “get” in Boone County since Dorial Green-Beckham came to town. Beckner’s already showing flashes of brilliance, and I suspect it’s just a matter of time before he’s part of the starting team.
Special teams were also a real strength for this team—mostly. Freshman punter Corey Fatony is the real deal, with excellent punting and (with one exception) kickoffs. Andrew Baggett was steady, making all six attempts, and the coverage units did a fine job of preventing big plays. The concern? The return game. You’ll never replace Marcus Murphy, but there were some awkward moments catching the ball (or not) for Penton, and Anthony Sherrils ran a kickoff out of the end zone which he probably should have just downed for a touchback. But these are minor and correctable concerns.
There were some very bright spots—the biggest of course being the excellent play of senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers. The most underrated defender in the SEC carried a bit of a chip on his shoulder into this season because of a lack of recognition and Tiger opponents will pay the price. After 16 tackles and a blocked punt, it’ll be a sham if he’s not named the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week. But even if he doesn’t get the personal recognition he’s earned, one thing’s clear. Brothers will continue to contribute to Tiger victories. My guess is that’s a trade-off Brothers will accept.
There were several other bright spots, but perhaps the brightest is just the overall preparedness of this team. I watched a lot of football this weekend and saw some teams that didn’t look ready to play. There was some real sloppiness in South Carolina’s offensive scheme, Vanderbilt looked very shaky, and Texas A&M had to play some quarterback bingo before finally getting their offense going against Arizona State.
Mizzou, on the other hand, looked like they knew this game was for real. There was a time-out called when personnel problems blew up a punt early. There was a truly dumb unsportsmanlike conduct call after Nate Brown’s touchdown. Mauk threw an ill-advised pass into double coverage off his back foot that was, of course, intercepted. But there were a lot fewer of these type of mistakes than from most of the teams I watched in Week One. Looking at the stat sheet, the number that impressed me the most was 6-54. Six penalties for 54 yards. Most of those came from two plays, the unsportsmanlike conduct call and a 15-yard facemask flagged against Sherrils. There was only one false start all day and only one holding call. In spite of losing Boehm for the second half, the Tigers’ O-Line showed a lot of discipline and only gave up three sacks to a SEMO team that lead their conference in sacks last year.
In spite of there being a lot of young players, this is a sign that this team has come into the 2015 season prepared to play. Yes, the schedule gets tougher from here. Of course, the running game must improve. And the guys who have to catch punts need to, you know, actually catch them.
But overall, just a week into this season I see a lot of reasons for optimism among Missouri football fans. I’ll be in Jonesboro, Arkansas, Saturday, we’ll see if there’s continued progress for this Tiger team.
Elsewhere in Missouri sports, I’ve used the same line over and over regarding this 2015 MU volleyball team, “They’ll improve quickly as the year goes along.” They have three transfers starting and are giving substantial playing time to new freshman Alyssa Munlyn. One could reasonably expect some early bumps while the newbies learn Wayne Kreklow’s system and adjust to new teammates, and in Munlyn’s case, to the college game as a whole.
Instead, the team has started with six straight wins. All three transfers are looking sharp but special notice goes to Kira Larson. A North Dakota kid who played for the tradition-laden Nebraska program (as did new defensive specialist Alexa Ethridge) Larson’s been a quick study to pick up the “Mizzou Way” and promises to be a big part of this team.
Returning All-American Carly Kan continues to be outstanding, and in the last few matches there’s been a big jump in the play of senior Regan Peltier and junior Julia Towler. Kan, Larson and Towler all made the All-Tournament team last weekend at the South Florida Invitational. With freshman middle blocker Hao Jin getting more playing time, and Sydney Deeken (hopefully) returning from injury soon, there’s a lot of depth on the front line, and Ethridge is settling into the libero position nicely.
We won’t see the Tigers play in Hearnes until SEC play starts on September 30, but keep an eye on this team, which could be on the way to a fine run in the conference.
Meanwhile, Bryan Blitz’s soccer club has been through a bit of a scoring drought. Since beating TCU 2-0 in their opener, the team scored more than one goal just once in five matches and has since played to consecutive 0-0 ties. Mizzou may well have the best back line in the SEC, and freshman Kelsey Dossey is doing a terrific job at goalkeeper. Missouri’s getting chances to score off the traditional Blitz attacking style, but the finishes aren’t coming.
It doesn’t make for a pretty game to watch, but packing the defense and hoping for a 1-0 win is smart tactics against this Missouri team. Until they can break out and score some goals early, forcing opponents to open up and attack more, we may see a lot of very low scoring soccer from the Tigers. Getting Allie Hess back from injury would be a major addition for Mizzou, meanwhile freshmen Amanda Shaw and Bethany Coons are getting significant minutes up front. The Tigers will be home for the first SEC event of the school year, taking on Auburn at Walton Stadium. Auburn and Missouri were both picked around the middle of the pack in preseason SEC polling, so this will be a biggie for both sets of Tigers. If Mizzou can get a goal or two early and force opponents’ tactics to change, this team’s capable of making a real run in conference play.
Because nobody’s going to score a lot against this Tiger team.
Shop talk —Thanks to Karen Mitchell and Nathan Lawrence, the KBIA Sports website should be back to fully operational soon. Believe me, when that happens, you’ll hear about it. You can continue to follow @kbiahellwege on Twitter for my thoughts, and again, I will be in Jonesboro on Saturday for Mizzou football. I’ll also be in Memphis Friday evening for ribs. Watch this space for my reporting on both these vital subjects.