COLUMBIA, Mo. – Eric Beisel has dominated the Missouri football media cycle this offseason. The senior linebacker has embraced his nickname, “Zeus,” and told reporters at Southeastern Conference media days that he believes he was a gladiator in a past life.
But more important, Beisel has assumed the role of leading the Tigers.
“He’s a guy that has really taken this team, not only on the defensive side, but the team in general, and has really been that vocal leader,” defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said after Missouri’s first day of preseason camp Tuesday morning. “And he’s doing it by example. He’s committed to the program, he’s committed to his teammates and he’s really kind of changed the leadership and direction of what this team has been.”
But there are questions surrounding Beisel’s defensive squad.
Missouri must replace six starters on defense this year, including first-round NFL draft pick Charles Harris.
“You lose someone like Charles Harris, I mean, everyone is like, ‘Who’s up next?’” senior defensive end Jordan Harold said. “ … It puts a chip on everybody’s shoulder to want to be that guy, for one, and regardless of that, just work together and produce as much as anybody, as any D-line in the nation.”
Cross will turn to Marcell Frazier and Harold to replace Harris on the edge. Terry Beckner Jr. and Markell Utsey, who both suffered anterior cruciate ligament tears last season, and A.J. Logan look to shore up the interior.
“We’ve had a lot of success with (Beckner and Utsey) coming back,” coach Barry Odom said. “We’ve monitored them, and we’ve kept them on track with making sure that we’re ready to go Sept. 2.”
Odom also anticipates the arrival of junior college transfers Malik Young and Walter Palmore, both defensive tackles. Neither was at camp Tuesday. Young is waiting to be deemed eligible by the NCAA. Palmore was scheduled to arrive in Columbia on Tuesday afternoon and is expected to be at camp Wednesday.
The sooner they arrive, the better. Odom said there is a lot of urgency to pin down the defensive line.
Along with Harris, the Tigers will have to find linebackers to fill the shoes of Donavin Newsom and Michael Scherer. Cross expects Beisel and junior Terez Hall to man their posts.
“Terez has transitioned well. He probably had the best spring of the linebackers,” Cross said. “ … I think him and Beisel really jelled and became our 1-2 punch.”
Nate Howard's future is also unknown. Howard remains suspended while facing a Class D felony charge for possession of a controlled substance. He has a plea hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Cross believes sophomore Cale Garrett and junior Jacob Trump will be in the mix, as well. Cross also spoke highly of freshmen Jamal Brooks and Aubrey Miller Jr. Beisel has high expectations for his linebacking core.
“We’ve tightened our bond, and we’re going to be the most elite unit in the nation,” he said.
POTENT OFFENSE RETURNS: Missouri brings back 10 of 11 starters from an offense that averaged 500 yards and 31 points last year. That experience doesn’t go unnoticed.
“We’re a year in, so we have a much better understanding of our personnel,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said.
That being said, starting jobs are still up for grabs.
“I think there’s still a lot of competition at spots,” Heupel said. “… There’s competition even with quote-unquote starters a year ago.”
Competition might be at its highest on the offensive line.
One of the Tigers’ biggest question marks going into last year was its offensive line. Despite preseason doubts, Missouri’s line was arguably the brightest spot last year. This year, Missouri returns all seven offensive linemen that started games last year. But, of course, there are only five spots to fill.
The preseason depth chart lists Tyler Howell, Kevin Pendleton, Jonah Dubinski, Adam Ploudre and Paul Adams as starters. Alec Abeln and Samson Bailey also saw starts last year.
“Every day you’ve got to go out and compete, and the guy that’s the most consistent and plays the hardest is going to win the job,” Abeln said.
Coaches and players know that healthy competition breeds success. So how high are expectations for a group that is coming of a breakout year and returns all of its starters?
“High,” Howell said. “High. Ten times higher than last year. Last year was nothing. We’ve got to get better, just keep building on it.”
Given the experience, maturity and skill of the group, Heupel expects the run game to flourish and the pass protection to develop.
“I think with the maturity that we have, and the growth that we have at that position, we’ll be able to be in five- and six-man protection a little bit more instead of gap protection,” Heupel said.
Heupel believes this would open up check downs and ultimately help quarterback Drew Lock, who Heupel said had a huge offseason.
“He’s so much further ahead than he was at the end of last year,” Heupel said. “He made strides in the spring ball, but just over the summer, you can tell already in the little time I’ve had with him, he’s come a long way.”
Lock’s main target from last year, senior J’Mon Moore, also returns. Moore looks to build on a 1,000-yard season and is the leader of the receiving core.
“Years past, it was other guys teaching me, helping me figure out what it is, helping me find that comfort level,” Moore said. “But now that I’m getting older, well, I am older, I’ve got to help other guys, got to push them along, lead by example, make sure that they know what they’re doing.”
Add in last year’s freshman phenom and 1,000-yard rusher, Damarea Crockett, and things look promising for the offense.
OTHER NOTES: Along with Young and Palmore, freshman receivers Da’Ron Davis and O’Shae Clark were not in attendance Tuesday.
Davis, who played his senior season at Lee’s Summit North High School, did not meet NCAA academic requirements and will not be part of the team this fall. Odom said he will be in contact with Davis and will try to get him back to the University of Missouri as soon as possible.
Clark has been suspended indefinitely for violating a team rule.
Linebacker Brandon Lee was limited at Tuesday’s camp with a hamstring injury.
Safety Ronnell Perkins was out with a hamstring injury and is day-to-day. Perkins is first on the depth chart for the free safety position.
Defensive tackle Rashad Brandon was not in a red jersey, but he did not participate. He is waiting on the NCAA to finalize his eligibility, which Odom doesn’t believe will be an issue.
Freshman offensive lineman Pompey Coleman also did not participate. Coleman is recovering from a second surgery on a broken left leg he suffered last August. Odom does not anticipate that Coleman will practice soon.
No captains have been named yet. Odom said that he wants camp to progress and plans to let the players decide who they want in that role.