For a team that is set to bring back 10 starters on offense and seven on defense, the Missouri football squad could look very different in 2018 than it did in 2017.
Derek Dooley will have a few tweaks for the offense, mainly in terms of tempo and added freedom for Drew Lock. The defense won’t have to worry about a system change, because “new” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters was there a year ago, but the absences of Anthony Sherrils and Marcell Frazier will be sizeable.
Even for the 17 starters who return, there’s no guarantee those spots won’t be taken by the time Tennessee-Martin comes to Columbia on Sept. 1.
Missouri returned all five 2016 starting offensive linemen, but three of those returners were second-string by the end of the 2017 season. Similarly, the Tigers brought back six defensive returners in 2017, though three were usurped by the time Missouri reached the Texas Bowl.
Where are the hottest position battles going to be for the Tigers this year? In most cases, it’s where there is depth without star potential:
This is technically lumping two positions – end and tackle – into one group, but both spots are likely to have slugfests for top billing on the depth chart, and there are enough bodies for heavy rotation at both positions throughout the year.
The Tigers enter 2018 with a bumper crop of defensive tackles, one of the hardest positions to recruit and develop in college football. It starts with Terry Beckner Jr., a future pro who, if healthy, has a spot secured. A number of solid-if-not-spectacular contributors could join him.
Jordan Elliott, a 6-foot-4, 325-pound Houston native, has the best chance to be a game-changer alongside Beckner. Kobie Whiteside, who played in all 12 games as a freshman last year, was the other starter on the depth chart this spring and could be next in line.
Then there’s a crowd that includes Rashad Brandon, a junior college transfer who showed flashes of speed and power to the tune of 5 1/2 tackles for loss in his first year with the Tigers; Akial Byers, a highly-touted recruit from Fayetteville, Ark., who fought injuries last season; Walter Palmore, another junior college transfer with overwhelming size; and the dependably competent Markell Utsey. The Tigers also added Antar Thompson, a 23-year old junior college transfer who was once one of the most lauded high school recruits in Missouri.
The Tigers have a mercurial playmaker at defensive end in Columbia native Tre Williams, who had three sacks last year as a redshirt freshman. Getting the most out of Williams’ potential has always been a challenge, though last season – which included more than a few come-to-Jesus moments with Brick Haley – felt like a turning point.
The spot opposite Williams looks to be Chris Turner’s for the taking after he showed promise as a third-down rusher late in the season. Turner was the other starter in the spring, but veteran Nate Anderson could hop into the lineup on occasion, as he did at times in 2017. Missouri also added depth at end through its incoming 2018 class in Blue Springs High School graduate Daniel Parker Jr. and Jatorian Hansford.
Missouri had four safeties from 2016 return from 2017, but by the end of the season, one – Cam Hilton – had been moved to nickelback and the spot alongside Sherrils ended up going to Kaleb Prewett, who started the season at strong side linebacker.
Prewett, a Blue Springs graduate, would have been a key returner, but he was indefinitely suspended in January and was not present at any spring practices. If he doesn’t come back, Missouri will have to replace his 60 tackles.
With Sherrils in the NFL and Prewett’s status uncertain, it’s a wide-open race to see who will play centerfield for the Tigers defense in 2018.
Hilton and Ronnell Perkins have a head start as the spring starters at free safety and strong safety, respectively. Perkins has appeared in games for two seasons and had 20 tackles in 2017, more than any other returning safety (besides Prewett).
Oregon graduate transfer Khalil Oliver figures to compete for a spot immediately. He was the Week 1 starter with the Ducks in 2017 before getting injured in that opener. Oliver was replaced in the starting lineup and announced his decision to transfer midway through the season.
Remember Jordan Ulmer? Missouri trotted out the freshman as a starter in Week 1, but after a disastrous performance against Missouri State, Ulmer didn’t start another game and played in only two of the Tigers’ last six games last year. Another strong fall camp could put him back in the fold. Also keep an eye on Tyree Gillespie, who played in seven games last year as a freshman.
DeMarkus Acy was thrust into a starting role last year after a shoulder injury in fall camp ended Christian Holmes’ season. Acy struggled through the first half of the year but got better as it went on: Missouri’s opponents averaged 6.36 yards per attempt over its final seven games, as opposed to 7.79 in the first six games.
Acy, who is 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, will be the No. 1 corner going into 2018. Holmes is back and featured in spring practice, though he’ll have to overtake Adam Sparks for a starting role. Sparks (6-foot, 175 pounds) started the last eight games in 2017 and was the starter in the spring after grabbing two interceptions and breaking up four passes last year.
Chris Mills is one of a few incoming freshman cornerbacks – along with early enrollee Tyrone Collins and Jarvis Ware – who might upset the order and be this year’s Sparks. Hilton could also return to a nickelback role, where he played some of his best snaps as a Tiger, if he gets pushed out at safety.
A shoulder injury kept Emanuel Hall out of the spring game, but one of the country’s best deep threats will anchor the 2018 receiving corps. Johnathon Johnson is a lock next to him at slot receiver.
Then … chaos. The Tigers’ third receiver could be Oregon transfer Alex Ofodile, senior Nate Brown, junior college transfer Harry Ballard III or even freshman Kam Scott.
Receivers coach AJ Ofodile raved about Brown’s leadership during spring practices, and the senior led the program in receiving touchdowns (four) in 2015. The spring depth chart listed him as the starting third receiver, even though he only caught 11 passes for 89 yards last season.
Alex Ofodile’s three-year career at Oregon was constantly derailed by injuries, but his time at Rock Bridge proved he has abundant natural talent. If he’s healthy, expect him to make an impact. Ballard and Scott have the size and speed to play as newcomers, though they might need a transition period to warm up to playing in the Southeastern Conference.
For a quicker, speedier look, the Tigers could roll with Richaud Floyd at the slot or No. 3 spot. Floyd was most often used as a slot behind Johnson last year, catching 14 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns in addition to his duties as a punt returner.
There’s plenty of excitement for Damarea Crockett’s return from a shoulder injury that kept him out of the final seven games of 2017. Athlon Sports has already named Crockett, who ran for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns as a freshman in 2016, as its third-team all-SEC running back.
While no longer injured, Crockett said throughout the spring that he was getting used to his surgically-repaired shoulder. Even after the spring game, Crockett said he was “nowhere near” his playing level before the surgery and that he needed to get out of the habit of tensing up before it got hit.
There’s little doubt that returning sophomore Larry Rountree III will be ready when the 2018 season begins. Rountree was more than eager to dish out punishment from his 5-10, 210-pound frame last season, and he finished the year as the program’s leader in all-purpose yards with 1,298 – 703 rushing, 538 from kick returns, and 57 receiving. Rountree could make a run at a starting spot if Crockett is still finding his footing at the beginning of the year.
There’s also plenty of depth behind that pair. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Miller was getting rave reviews from coaches before undergoing ankle surgery in March, but Miller should be back in time for fall camp. Dawson Downing made the most of his touches as a walk-on in 2017, delivering a memorable highlight against Connecticut when he jackhammered a Husky safety into the turf on a long run down the middle of the field.