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July 23, 2010
Missouri suffered an uneven season in 2009, not surprising because the Tigers were "rebuilding."
Actually, coach Gary Pinkel has the Tigers to the point where they don't really "rebuild." Mizzou now expects to contend for the Big 12 North title each season, and if the defense comes around, the Tigers could be in the hunt this season.
Eight wins -- which is how many Mizzou finished with last season -- used to be a cause for celebration for the Tigers. Now, it's cause for some head-shaking. There should be less head-shaking this season.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator David Yost runs a traditional spread offense that operates almost exclusively out of a one-back set. While often employing multiple-receiver sets, Missouri still liberally incorporates the tight end into its attack. But some fans would like to see more power sets employed in short-yardage situations.
STAR POWER: Missouri will have one of the more talented quarterbacks in the country slinging the ball in 6-foot-5, 240-pound junior Blaine Gabbert, who enters the season as a long shot Heisman candidate following a campaign in which he threw for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns. Gabbert is mobile for his size, which gives his receivers time to get open. It's worth noting that Gabbert has yet to notch a signature win and has struggled vs. quality foes, but he showed toughness fighting through an ankle injury last season.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Fans can't wait to check out four-star receiver Marcus Lucas, a 6-5, 205-pound in-state product (Liberty, Mo.) who had a long list of offers. Lucas is a special talent who could get on the field quickly.
STRONGEST AREA: It's the backfield. Combine Gabbert with Derrick Washington, who is one of the Big 12's most experienced running backs, and Mizzou has the makings of a dynamic attack. Washington ran for 865 yards last season and 1,078 the year before. He lost 10 pounds during the offseason and is said to be in the best shape of his career. This talented duo will work behind a solid line that returns four starters and is led by Tim Barnes, who is considered one of the Big 12's top centers.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tigers lost their top two receivers in Danario Alexander and Jared Perry. Alexander's 1,781 receiving yards led the nation in 2009; he also scored 14 touchdowns. Perry had 696 yards and six scores. Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp will be asked to play bigger roles after combining for 60 catches last fall. Keep an eye on TE Andrew Jones, as he may blossom this fall.
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Dave Steckel employs a 4-3 alignment that uses a nose tackle. Missouri is judicious with its use of blitzes and stunts, picking opportune times to dial up the pressure and bring the heat. As more athletes have been added to the roster, Missouri has become a faster defense capable of playing better in space vs. the myriad spread attacks in the Big 12. But work must be done to better defend the pass.
STAR POWER: E Aldon Smith is the clear standout among Missouri's nine returning defensive starters. He ranked third in the Big 12 in sacks last season with 11.5 and was fourth in tackles for loss (19). Smith paces a strong collection of ends that also features Jacquies Smith, Marcus Malbrough and Brad Madison. Too bad the tackle spots aren't as strong, as the jobs on the interior of Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno are hardly safe.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Redshirt freshman FS Matt White impressed in the spring with his fluid skills. White is a smooth athlete whose skills should help improve a leaky secondary.
STRONGEST AREA: The linebacking corps looks stout. Andrew Gachkar and Will Ebner return after combining for 158 tackles last season. The unit also will be bolstered by the return of Luke Lambert, who will battle Ebner in the middle. But most eyes will be focused on Zaviar Gooden, a speedster who has the unenviable task of replacing Sean Weatherspoon. The 19th overall pick in the NFL draft, Weatherspoon finished third in the Big 12 in tackles in 2009 with 111.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Stopping the pass. Carl Gettis and Jarrell Harrison -- both seniors -- are among the defensive backs who will try to improve a secondary that allowed 251.5 passing yards per game last season. Only one Big 12 team (Texas A&M) fared worse. Mizzou picked off just eight passes and yielded 20 touchdown tosses. Look for Kemp to make significant contributions at nickel back when Missouri switches to a 4-2-5 alignment.
Grant Ressel was the league's most accurate kicker in 2009, when he made 26 of his 27 field-goal attempts. His longest was from 46 yards. Matt Grabner will take over for Jake Harry at punter. The Tigers also bring back both of their return men in Gettis (punts) and Jasper Simmons (kickoffs). The big key for Missouri on special teams, though, will be improving its coverage units -- particularly on kickoffs, where the Tigers ranked 11th in the conference last season.
This is a tale of two schedules. The first half is soft. The second half is hard. After opening against Illinois in St. Louis, the Tigers play four consecutive home games. And Mizzou will be a heavy favorite in each contest. Bottom line: The Tigers better open 5-0 because they will need all of the wins they can get as they enter the defining stretch of their schedule: at Texas A&M, vs. Oklahoma, at Nebraska and at Texas Tech. If Mizzou can two of those four, it will be considered a success. The schedule ends with a whimper: Kansas State, at Iowa State and vs. Kansas in Kansas City.
At most schools, an 8-5 record is good enough to get the coach a pay raise. At Missouri, it's now considered a down season. That's a credit to Pinkel, who has turned Missouri into one of the elite programs in the Big 12 during his nine seasons in Columbia. Even though the Tigers may not have been satisfied with their finish in 2009, that they even reached the postseason was impressive considering the loss of standout QB Chase Daniel, who guided the school to 22 wins and two bowl victories in his final two seasons. Gabbert, Daniels' replacement, looked every bit as good and sometimes better than his predecessor during the early portions of last season before an ankle injury stymied his progress. If Gabbert can stay healthy -- and Missouri can improve what Pinkel said was an "awful" defense -- the Tigers have an excellent chance of challenging Nebraska for the Big 12 North title. At the least, they should earn a berth in a high-profile bowl. Last season, Missouri flopped miserably in the Texas Bowl, getting smoked 35-13 by Navy.
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