Missouri Football: 5 Spring Practice Positional Battles to Watch
What are Missouri's Key Position Battles Heading into Spring?
The Missouri Tigers are primed for another big season in the SEC after coming to prominence with a 12-2 record during 2013. While they’re not exactly bringing back the core of the team, this will not be a massive rebuilding project for Mizzou. The Tigers have nine offensive positions which are projected to be filled by players with starting experience this season. Though they’ll need to replace seven defensive starters, many of those spots can be assumed by players who have substantial big-game experience.
Case in point: the Tigers’ biggest losses on defense came at the defensive end spot, where Michael Sam graduated and Kony Ealy declared early for the NFL Draft. Luckily, soon-to-be senior Markus Golden rotated with the starters throughout the season and finished with 55 tackles and 6.5 sacks. Though he’ll be starting for the first time, Golden is arguably going to be the Tigers’ best returning defensive player.
A similar situation occurs on offense, where running back Henry Josey was probably the biggest loss following his decision to bolt for the draft. Running backs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough have received significant playing time over the past two seasons, so Mizzou probably won’t be too affected by Josey’s departure.
There will be a few positions where the Tigers need someone new to step up, and those spots will be points of interest on March 11. Here are five of the most intriguing battles to watch as Mizzou gets back on the field next week.
Starting cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder are both graduating, so the cornerback position will be wide open for the Tigers coming into spring camp. Aarion Penton would seem to be a favorite to claim one of the roles, seeing as he started several games as a true freshman during 2013 to positive acclaim. Senior Xavier Smith, junior David Johnson, and sophomore John Gibson seem to be the most likely candidates to assume the remainder of the playing time, though 6-foot-2 redshirt junior Ernest Payton, junior college transfer Kenya Dennis, and incoming freshman Raymond Wingo may end up pushing for spots as well.
4. Wide Receiver
The Tigers lose their twin tower starting receivers, L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas. Returning starters Dorial Green-Beckham and Bud Sasser are very likely to retain their prominent roles, but the other two starting spots are up for grabs among seniors Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, redshirt sophomore Levi Copelin, and several other competitors. Especially considering Copelin’s repeated run-ins with the law, White and Hunt would seem to be the favorites for the starting spots. With that said, Mizzou consistently uses more than four receivers per game, so there will be plenty of opportunities for other wideouts to assert themselves during 2014.
3. Free Safety
Departing free safety Matt White will leave the spot vacant for a competition between Cortland Browning and Duron Singleton in 2014. Browning, going into his redshirt junior year, was listed above Singleton on the depth chart. However, Singleton, who was in his first year with the program after coming in as a highly-regarded JUCO recruit, recorded 23 tackles as opposed to Browning’s four. Ultimately, if he is fully acclimated to the system in 2014, Singleton probably has a better chance to come away with the starting job.
2. Strongside Linebacker
Mizzou will have to replace the graduating Donovan Bonner at strongside linebacker. Redshirt junior Clarence Green was listed second at the position on the depth chart last year and would seem to be the default favorite at the position. However, the player behind him, redshirt sophomore Donavin Newsom, is better built, was a much more highly-regarded recruit— the 12-ranked inside linebacker in the nation by ESPN, as compared to Green’s ranking as the 119th-best outside linebacker—and made some notable plays on special teams near the end of 2013. He could seriously challenge Green, as could senior Darvin Ruise, who served as the backup to Kentrell Brothers at weakside ‘backer last season.
1. Left Tackle
Missouri loses Justin Britt, who’s been the starting left tackle for most of the past three seasons, to graduation. His backup in 2013, and the presumptive favorite to win the job, is 6-foot-3, 295-pound Jordan Williams, an athletic redshirt sophomore who shifted to tackle during the season after having worked at guard earlier in his Mizzou career. 6-foot-5, 300-pound Taylor Chappell, who was listed as the second-string right tackle during 2013, would also seem to be a prime candidate for the job.
If the Tigers want more experience at the position, they could opt to move 2013 right tackle Mitch Morse over to the left side. It may also make sense to install Anthony Gatti there, who had been the longtime backup left tackle but shifted to guard last season, as he has the most experience of any player at position. With that said, he was very effective when starting at left guard last year, and it would probably be more sensible to let him thrive in the interior.
Head coach Gary Pinkel has only started two true freshmen on the offensive line during his tenure at Mizzou, but if he wants to be bold he could choose to start Andy Bauer, who was rated as the eighth-best offensive tackle prospect in the country and the top overall prospect in Missouri by Rivals and ESPN.