Pinkel's got the goods to keep Mizzou competing at the highest level
APR 04, 2014 6:09p ET
Some of the faces have changed, but the expectations remain the same for the Missouri football program following its breakthrough 12-2 campaign last fall.
The Tigers began spring practice March 11 and will hold their first of three scrimmages Saturday morning. The three scrimmages conclude with the annual Black & Gold Game on April 19 at Memorial Stadium.
Coach Gary Pinkel will have plenty to replace, of course, as evidenced by last month's Pro Day where 15 players worked out for NFL scouts.
Among the key players moving on are quarterback James Franklin, running back Henry Josey, wide receivers L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, offensive linemen Justin Britt and Max Copeland, defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, linebackers Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner and cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder.
But Pinkel has enough talent returning from last year's squad to think that the Tigers are in reloading and not rebuilding mode after ranking fifth nationally.
The reigning SEC East Division champions return 12 position players who started last season, five each on offense and defense, as well as its kicker and punter. The Tigers have a total of 19 players (10 on offense, seven on defense, two specialists) with starting experience.
There are still areas of concern going into the first scrimmage.
Russell Hansbrough, a junior, is the No. 1 tailback this spring and has big shoes to fill after Josey gave up his final year of eligibility to go pro.
Josey rushed for 1,166 yards and scored a team-high 16 touchdowns last season to cap off his remarkable comeback from a devastating knee injury.
Josey, Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy combined to give the Tigers a strong rushing attack in 2013 and Hansbrough and Murphy, a senior, look like they can keep that going in 2014. Hansbrough rushed for 685 yards, averaging six per carry, and four touchdowns last fall. Murphy, who is second on the depth chart behind Hansbrough and is also an impact returner, rushed for 601 yards, with 6.5 per carry, and nine touchdowns.
There's more excitement than concern this spring at quarterback because sophomore Maty Mauk proved himself capable of running the offense when Franklin was out with his shoulder injury.
Mauk threw for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions and also ran for 229 yards and a score. His completion rate of 51.1 percent is an area he will have to improve, but that should come with experience.
What the Tigers have at quarterback behind Mauk is a bit of a mystery.
Corbin Berkstresser is second on the depth chart this spring, but the junior attempted just one pass last season and was injured for a chunk of games. Eddie Printz, who will return as a redshirt freshman this fall, took Berkstresser's place on the depth chart but did not see any action. Printz and Trent Hosick, another freshman, are competing to unseat Berkstresser for that back-up spot, which became a factor in the 2012 and 2013 seasons after Franklin went down with injuries.
Mauk's freewheeling playing style could leave him vulnerable to injury, which could mean the success of the 2014 Tigers could be determined by whoever establishes himself as the back-up.
The offensive line should be in position to help both the running back and quarterback situations because of their returning experience, but losing the left side of the line with Britt and Copeland is a concern.
The Tigers return three starters on the line with senior Mitch Morse and juniors Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern. Boehm is back at center, but Morse moves from right to left tackle and McGovern moves from right guard to right tackle.
Senior Anthony Gatti is currently the starter at left guard and junior Mitch L. Hall is at right guard. The 320-pound Hall and 315-pound Gatti are the two largest heavyweights up front, which means Mizzou should be bigger and stronger up front than this past season.
Kentrell Brothers was tabbed to replace Wilson at middle linebacker, but the junior will miss most of the spring practices after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Brothers was the only returning starter at linebacker with Wilson and Bonner both using up their eligibility. That means the Tigers will have to rely on untested and unproven players among the linebacking corps.
Sophomores Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom will be key players to watch for significant roles. Eric Beisel, a redshirt freshman, entered spring practice as Brothers' backup at middle backer.
The most experienced player among the linebackers is senior Darvin Ruise, who recorded 44 tackles and a forced fumble last season.
Braylon Webb is back at strong safety for his senior season this fall.
He was one of the underrated players on Mizzou's defense in 2013 when he racked up 89 tackles, seven passes defensed and three interceptions -- all marks that ranked second among the Tigers.
Ian Simon, a junior, is slated to start at free safety after he recorded 42 tackles, five passes defensed and one interception last season.
After Webb and Simon, however, Mizzou will be very young in the secondary. Sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson got some experience last season and back-ups and went into the spring as the starters at cornerback.
Penton was among the group of Tiger athletes, including basketball player Wes Clark, who ran into legal trouble last month.
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.