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College Football Preview 2015-2016: 20. Missouri Tigers

Maty Mauk
20. Missouri Tigers

2014-2015 Record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC)
Coach: Gary Pinkel, 15th year (113-66 overall)
Recruiting Rundown
Key Losses: DE/LB Shane Ray, DE Markus Golden
Heisman Hopeful: QB Maty Mauk
Breakout Player: WR Nate Brown

Once more, many people doubted the Missouri program heading into 2014-2015. Even after a 2013 SEC East Division title and a 12-2 season one year after a rude 5-7 awakening to SEC football, there were so many who saw the team seriously slipping. It was understandable; WR Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed, the team's leader, QB James Franklin and TB Henry Josey were also gone. Add to that the loss of Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam, and Mizzou appeared poised for a rebuilding season in 2014. An early season loss to Big Ten cellar dweller Indiana seemed only to further many people's beliefs. Instead, Gary Pinkel's program once more proved people wrong, going 11-3 and winning the SEC East, while capping it all off with a Citrus Bowl victory over Minnesota. Heading into 2015 there are losses and doubters, but why bet against the flaming hot Tigers?

Backfield: There were times when Maty Mauk looked like a legitimate elite quarterback for Missouri last year. And, there were also moments when he was brutally bad. Though, as a junior and in his second full season as starter (he saw action as a redshirt freshman when Franklin had injury problems), Mauk should take some major strides. The former prized recruit has started 17 games over the past two seasons and has a proven arm. While decision-making must improve, he does have a rocket that can make nearly any throw. Plus, he adds something dangerous as a runner, as he added 373 yards with his legs. Mauk can throw it down the field with the best of them, but he must become stronger in short throws and improve his accuracy. He completed just over 53 percent of his passes, something that could be a serious problem for a team with high goals. Mauk is almost certain to take steps to cut down turnovers and dumb decisions, and having a reliable back to take some off the target off his back will help. Missouri has that in senior tailback Russell Hansbrough. Hansbrough is not the flashiest runner in the world, but the 5'9", 195-pound back is a workhorse with strong, powerful legs that help in short yardage situations. There is no doubt Hansbrough will enter 2015 as a serious threat for an All-SEC nomination, after picking up 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns throughout last season. Joining Hansbrough will be explosive Ish Witter, returning for a sophomore season, in which he could be a serious breakout candidate. Witter saw just 27 rushes behind Hansbrough and now departed Marcus Murphy last season, but showed plenty of ability. He is more quick than Hansbrough and has more big play ability than the senior. Pinkel  and third year offensive coordinator Josh Henson could even try a couple of newcomers at the position to mix things up. The most likely would be JUCO transfer Chase Abbington, rated as a four-star prospect by 24/7 Sports. The back from Hutchinson Community College in nearby St. Peters, Missouri, has all the talent to make an impact from the get-go in Columbia. Freshmen Marquise Doherty (three-star, from Kansas City) and Natereace Strong (four-star, East St. Louis in Illinois) will battle to see any opportunities this year but redshirts could be likely.

Receivers: With stud wide receiver (and former five-star recruit) Dorial Green-Beckham gone, Bud Sasser emerged as a key playmaker in the Missouri offense. His superb production will not be easily replaced, clearly. He recorded 77 receptions for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2014, as Mauk's favorite target. Also leaving Columbia this offseason were fellow playmakers Darius White and Jimmie Hunt, leaving Missouri's receiver corps extremely depleted. While that is a very worrying thought for a team with an inconsistent quarterback, there is enough talent in the unit that someone is certain to step up. Perhaps the top breakout candidate will be sophomore Nate Brown, who had a very modest 5 catches for 45 yards last year. There was worry this spring when Brown had knee problems, but there is a wide belief he will be fully healthy when the season kicks off in early September. Brown won't blow past most defenders, but he has reliable hands and he is an established route runner. Joining Brown will be guys like sophomore J'mon Moore and senior Wesley Leftwich. Combined, Moore and Leftwich had just five catches so clearly there is work to be done there. Moore may be the more lethal weapon through the air. The sophomore is incredibly quick out of the gate, has tremendous athleticism and oozes with potential. A mainstay on the Missouri sideline for years (he is also a native of the college town as well), Leftwich will be eager to show what he can do when he finally gets the chance. Junior Eric Laurent will also fight for more snaps and chances in the crowded group. Missouri fans along with the coaching staff also should be excited about the return of Keyon Dilosa. The redshirt freshman is returning from a pretty serious Achilles injury, but if he gets his explosiveness and burst back, he could be a very, very good in due time. Expect Mississippi product Richaud Floyd and St. Louis talent Cameron Hilton to search for any hints of chances they can get, despite being buried on the depth chart at the moment. Tight end could be a pretty notable strength, as experience returns there. Junior Sean Culkin is actually the team's leading returning pass catcher, picking up 20 receptions for 174 yards. He has really worked hard to grow into a more complete offensive weapon, and his hands and natural play have improved. Sophomore Jason Reese offers a young backup with plenty of upside.

Offensive Line: Pinkel and his staff clearly have realized what it takes to win in the SEC: dominant play in the trenches. They have recruited both lines well and worked hard to upgrade the units. The offensive line certainly has benefitted, so much in fact, that it could be the strength of the team. Four starters return to anchor a line that was very solid throughout 2014. That includes fan favorite and iron man Evan Boehm. The senior center has started every single game of his career with Mizzou and he gives real strength and power to the heart of the entire unit. Joining him will be another very experienced linemen in Connor McGovern. McGovern is a senior who gets out in run blocking and opens up massive lanes for his backs to scurry through as well as anybody. He will form an impressive duo with Boehm in the interior. Left tackle Mitch Morse exhausted his eligibility this offseason, but not to worry. It appears that last year's starting right tackle, Taylor Chappell, will make a slide across the unit to the position. There may be some time for adjustment for Chappell, but he is still a gigantic linemen with long arms. Also returning will be another veteran in senior Mitch Hall, who is also over 300 pounds and a monster. He will likely start at right guard and will also find ways to impact the ground game with McGovern. Perhaps the only concern for the unit will be at right tackle, where Chappell left. Sophomores Nate Crawford and Clay Rhodes are the candidates to take over the spot. Both are extremely inexperienced, and playing some of the great pass rushers inside the conference definitely will not be an easy adjustment. As far as what Missouri did for recruiting the unit this year, they worked hard at snatching up guard A.J. Harris. Harris will struggle to get snaps this year, but he could definitely be the future of the interior of the offensive line, with McGovern, Boehm and Hall all finishing up their fantastic careers with the Tigers here very soon.

Defensive Line: Where does Missouri get their pass rush from after Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam graduated? The Tigers got lucky, finding two dominant pass rushers, especially in Shane Ray, who earned All-American honors after posting 14.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Although a drug possession charge just days before the Draft contributed to a dropping stock, he still was a first-round selection. Also gone is Markus Golden, who will also be playing on Sundays, after picking up 10 sacks himself. While the absence of those two are certainly not going to help, Pinkel and his staff always find players to step up. This year, that player could be sophomore Charles Harris at defensive end. Despite seeing very limited action a season ago, Harris still found a way to manage two sacks and 4 TFL. The youthful pass rusher possesses the quick and explosive first step of Ray, but also the power of Golden. The combination of two great traits of guys who recorded 24.5 total sacks last year? Sounds like very good news to Harris and Mizzou. Also likely to see more action is a fellow sophomore, Marcus Loud. Also deep in the Tigers' depth chart in 2014, he found a way to rack up 14 tackles and showed potential in very, very limited action. Loud also possesses extreme athleticism and durability. While it will be nearly impossible for the two to completely replace the production of Ray and Golden, they certainly have major upside and could really be something by the end of the season. The interior of the defensive line is most likely to be the strength of the unit, although things took an unlikely and unfortunate turn just a few weeks ago. Junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley was expected to post big numbers this season. He was injured in a car accident though, and received some serious injuries. His status for the upcoming season is unclear, but if he does see action, he will find ways to make plays. Quicker and sneakier than most at his position, Brantley is a strong pass rusher, recording five sacks in 2014. If he isn't ready to go, expect juniors Evan Winston or Rickey Hatley to see opportunities. Another player that could see action is Missouri's gem of this year's recruiting cycle, Terry Beckner. Missouri rarely gets credit for being a great place for NFL talent and blue chip recruits, but they do a very good job every single year of landing prime talent. Beckner certainly is that talent, as he is rated as a five-star recruit by nearly every scouting service. He is rated as the top overall defensive tackle by ESPN as well as 24/7 Sports and he could be the most dominant tackle Missouri has seen since Sheldon Richardson. Though, he will need time to get even stronger and lighter on his feet, along with getting adjusted to the physical brand of football in the SEC. Junior Josh Augusta is sure to start at nose guard, after putting up satisfactory numbers last season, with 23 tackles and also forcing two fumbles.

Michael Scherer
Linebackers: Great front sevens and playmaking linebackers are not rare whatsoever in the SEC, but what Missouri has in the linebacker corps could be special, even by the conference's standards. Few players were as flaming hot towards the end of the year in 2014 as Kentrell Brothers. After starting off rather slow, Brothers picked things up big time in conference play, and would finish up with 122 tackles, which included about nine tackles per game in SEC play. Now, the senior linebacker is back to lead the unit, and is sure to make plays all over the field. Not only does Brothers possess the instincts and smarts to recognize plays and make tackles, he is a sure tackler, who wraps up very well and is very disciplined. Also joining Brothers will be another tackling machine in junior Michael Scherer, who has the versatility to play on the weakside or more naturally, at middle linebacker. Scherer had 114 stops throughout last season, showing a knack for bone-jarring hits as well. Him and Brothers were No. 2 and 3 in the SEC in total tackles, and with another year under their belt, they could get even better, which is an extremely scary thought for the rest of the conference. The opposite outside linebacker slot across from Brothers isn't a particular strength, but there is enough experience and strength there for it to become impressive as well. The most likely starter will be junior Donovan Newsom, who picked up 24 tackles. Though, he showed a knack for playing down hill, and constantly disrupting opposing backfields. Sure to challenge him for the starting position is a seasoned vet in senior Clarence Green. Green isn't the best athlete on the field, but much like most on the Missouri defense, he is disciplined and has a high football IQ, making him sure to find ways to impact the game. The depth throughout the linebacker corps is decent, and there is certainly some potential there. Sophomore Eric Beisel has the potential to be a playmaking linebacker in short time, but for now he is delegated to backup duties beyond Scherer at middle linebacker.

Secondary: Experience and talent also returns in the defensive backfield position, even with the loss of impact defender Braylon Webb. Webb picked up 70 overall tackles last year, and was always ready to make big plays, recording 4 interceptions, which he brought back for an average of over 20 yards per pick. His loss hurts, but there is significant talent returning at both cornerback positions. Junior corner Aaron Penton will assume the role of being the ball hawk and turnover machine with the absence of Webb. Penton recorded three interceptions and 10 pass deflections last year, and could assume the role as the No. 1 cornerback for the Tigers. Offenses won't be able to throw away from him though, as Kenya Dennis also returns to give Mizzou a formidable combo. Dennis is a better tackler than Penton, picking up 61 tackles last season. He is more natural as a run defender as well, though he doesn't possess the ball skills of Penton. Both have experience and know what it takes to win in the SEC, a clear luxury for first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom. Senior Ian Simon is returning to give Missouri a strong, playmaking free safety. Simon picked up 54 tackles last year, and is also an adept run defender. Playing free safety, he will be more available to help in run support and is great at covering over the middle of the field. At strong safety, senior Cortland Browning is the likely starter slated to take over for Webb. Browning was very quiet in a backup role in 2014, but Mizzou is certainly hoping he will be able to provide some serious coverage help. The depth beyond Penton and Dennis at cornerback is also very impressive. Junior John Gibson is a solid, well-rounded corner who say significant time last year and managed four pass deflections. Senior David Johnson is also back to provide even more support.

Special Teams: Unfortunately, many college football fans may remember Andrew Baggett for missing a pretty straightforward field goal that could have clinched a victory and maintain their perfect record at the time in 2013. In reality, he has developed into a very strong kicker, knocking down 18 of 25 field goal attempts last year. Freshman Cory Fatony was a three-star recruit plucked to be the future of the kicker position. The loss of Marcus Murphy, a return specialist, definitely hurts.

A lot of talent left the Mizzou campus this offseason. But, even more returns, including a veteran quarterback with huge upside, a solid back, an experienced O-Line and a defense that could truly be dominant against the run. So, why not pick against the Tigers to win their third straight SEC East title? Georgia will certainly be viewed as clear threats though, as well and Missouri gets them on the road "Between the Hedges", after losing 34-0 last year. Though, if Missouri can get past them and a tough November that includes meetings with Mississippi State, at Arkansas, against BYU and Tennessee, they will win the division, and once again will be a very serious dark horse for a possible CFB Playoff berth.

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