Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
As Missouri football spring drills continue, Tiger fans anxiously await the 2013 season. And there’s good reason for the anxiety. This may well be the most important season in recent memory for the Tigers.
Maybe last year’s 5-7 collapse was an anomaly, a bump in the road for a strong program. Maybe a very good team, between adjusting to a new league and a ridiculous rash of injuries, just had all its bad luck come together at one time. Or, maybe a program that had been up for a while has crashed back to earth.
One thing for sure, improvement is badly needed. Fortunately, following last Saturday’s opening scrimmage, we may be seeing that needed improvement in a lot of key areas.
The biggest change is going to be not on the field but on the sideline and in the coaches’ box, where the new offensive brain trust of Josh Henson and Andy Hill replaces former offensive coordinator David Yost, who has taken a new gig coaching receivers at Washington State. I can already see differences, as the Tigers looked crisper on offense as plays developed more quickly. The quarterbacks are still in a shotgun formation but are a step closer to the center.
Of course, like all offenses, success for the Tigers is 2013 is predicated on one thing above all else—strong play from the quarterback.
QUARTERBACK: Just like the Tiger offense as a whole, what to make of James Franklin’s 2012 season can’t really be judged fairly until we see what happens in 2013. Franklin played hurt a lot of last year and was behind an offensive line one could charitably define as piecemeal. While Franklin’s passing game wasn’t far off from previous seasons, the running game was. After rushing for at least 40 yards in 11 of 13 games two years back, Franklin topped the mark just once last season, going for 43 against Tennessee.
If Franklin can return to the days when his skill as a passer was augmented by the fear he put into the defense when he tucked the ball and ran, it could be a very special senior year for him. And, contrary to what some observers think, I doubt there will be any serious quarterback debate going on here. Once the season starts, Franklin will be the man.
The debate will continue as to who is No. 2, but indications are that it may well be redshirt freshman Maty Mauk. Not only was he a better passer Saturday (11-19, 140 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int) than Corbin Berkstresser (8-22, 52 yards, 0 TD, 0 Int) but Mauk also can step right into Franklin’s shoes as a running quarterback. He dashed for 81 yards and showed some slick moves.
RUNNING BACKS: As poor as MU’s offense was last year, they had one bright spot: Kendial Lawrence rushing for more than 1,100 yards. Lawrence has graduated but the position will continue to be a major strength of the team. The return of Marcus Murphy, who averaged more than five yards a carry last year, and talented sophomore Russell Hansbrough would be reason enough for Tiger fans to be excited, but all eyes will be on Henry Josey. Josey was the No. 5 rusher in the nation when he suffered a major knee injury on Faurot Field two seasons ago against Texas, and after sitting out a full season and putting in remarkable effort towards rehab, he looked sharp on Saturday.
OFFENSIVE LINE: If the subject is “improvement,” when talking about the offensive line at Mizzou the answer is almost clearly “how could you not.” It’s hard to imagine a more calamitous season for any unit than the 2012 Tiger O-line. Injury after injury after injury had guys playing out of position, guys who would ordinarily have been well down on the depth chart starting, and, above all, a true lack of the continuity you need from an offensive line. The results were obvious, as Mizzou’s offense went from one of the nation’s best to among the worst in just one year.
But some deep guy said once, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. And last year’s train wreck means a line this year that is not only skilled and deep but has more experience than one might have expected. It’s extremely rare for a true freshman to get much playing time on the offensive line, but with all the guys on the disabled list Evan Boehm started all 12 games last year and was named first team Freshman All-American by College Football News. He’s been moved to center, a position that was problematic last season, and with his size and ability it’s likely he’ll take his place in a long line of outstanding Tiger centers.
The Tigers have their most experienced lineman at the key left tackle position in Justin Britt, who played very well before being lost to…you guessed it…another injury, in last year’s Florida game. Last year saw guys like former walk-on Max Copeland and youngster Brad McNulty step up and play well, and gave Mitch Morse a chance to show his toughness and versatility. And with the return from injury of Taylor Chappell, there’ll be some interesting position battles through the spring and fall camps and some major skill and depth across the line. At no position should Missouri be more improved in the upcoming season.
WIDE RECEIVER: The team’s leading receiver from 2012, senior Marcus Lucas, returns. So do deep threat guys, L’Damian Washington (17.7 yards per catch) Jimmie Hunt (18.1) and Bud Sasser (23.1). But the excitement around the receiving corps is obviously centered on Dorial Green-Beckham. In most cases, a true freshman getting nearly 400 yards receiving against SEC competition and leading the team with five touchdowns would be big stuff. But DGB came in as the top recruit in the nation and expectations were, and remain, sky high. Aside from an 80 yard bomb against Central Florida, DGB didn’t contribute a lot early in the year, but as the season progressed things picked up. Seven catches against Kentucky, two touchdowns (including the tying score in the final minute) against Tennessee, a long TD against Syracuse and four catches for 55 yards against Texas A&M demonstrate that as the season wore down Green-Beckham become more and more a part of the offense. And in last Saturday’s scrimmage, he led the way with seven catches for 82 yards.
And at tight end, the Tigers tradition of outstanding play continues with the return of Eric Waters and with exciting redshirt freshman Sean Culkin in the mix. Waters played a good deal as a blocking back last season, but both he and Culkin are also capable of being a big part of the passing game in the mold of Michael Egnew, Chase Coffman, Martin Rucker and Kellen Winslow. Waters and Culkin are both skilled enough to keep the nickname of “Tight End U.” alive at Mizzou.