Entering his second season in the Southeastern Conference, Gary Pinkel remains resolute that his Tigers were not caught off guard in year one.
"Nothing about this league surprised us," Pinkel said. "It was exactly what we thought it would be."
That first tour through the SEC resulted in a 5-7 record, including 2-6 in league play. After that, Missouri entered spring with absolutely everything wide open.
First and foremost, that meant the quarterback position. James Franklin started as a sophomore and put together a 3,800-yard, 36-touchdown season. But after a shoulder injury last spring, Franklin could never stay healthy in the Tigers' first SEC season and produced only 1,684 yards and ten touchdowns, including none as a junior. The result is that Franklin entered the spring having to fight for his job.
Coming out of spring ball, Franklin is atop the depth chart with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk second and Corbin Berkstresser third. Franklin didn't light the world on fire in the spring, but he took care of the ball. Both Mauk and Berkstresser turned the ball over twice in Mizzou's Black and Gold game, while Franklin was mistake free.
"I think it's really important. Protecting the ball's good," Franklin said. "Even if you don't move the ball, being able to keep it in possession and punt it away on fourth down rather than an interception is always better."
"The thing that we've really got to clean up, and with all the issues we had with personnel on offense last year, if you want to be a good offensive football team, you can't get penalties, you can't take sacks, you can't turn the ball over," Pinkel said. These are all things that you're beating yourself doing."
The quarterback issue will run well into fall camp. Mauk said he does not expect to know the result until the week of Missouri's opener against Murray State.
But just as important as the quarterback will be the performance of those around him. The Tigers had only one offensive lineman start every game last season, true freshman Evan Boehm. Boehm has moved from guard to center this year. Justin Britt returns from a knee injury at left tackle, Mitch Morse moves from center to right tackle and Max Copeland, Connor McGovern and Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall are battling for the starting spots at guard.
The man in charge of the offense has changed as well. Formerly the Tigers' offensive line coach, Josh Henson took over as offensive coordinator when David Yost resigned after last season.
"It's consistency of execution. We've got to continue to execute better," Henson said. "Only way I know to do that is just to rep it, rep it, rep it, rep it and demand it. We'll get there and get it done. Overall, I'm pleased with the spring.
"We were wanting to develop the tight end position a little bit more. Some of the things with the offensive scheme we were wanting to do, we didn't really get to do because we had five practices, we came back and basically after our first two practices back, our top three tight ends were all hurt. We kind of went, 'Okay, stop that and go a different direction.' Didn't feel like we got where we wanted to with some of those things."
Despite last year's offensive struggles, Henson is not without weapons. Former No. 1 recruit Dorial Green-Beckham led the Tigers in receiving in all three spring scrimmages and Jimmie Hunt put together a strong spring before injuring his ankle in the final week. In the backfield, Henry Josey is back after missing the entire 2012 season rehabbing from a gruesome knee injury and will join Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough in the rotation.
Missouri knows there are plenty of questions. For now, the Tigers simply continue to work in hopes of proving that their first season in the SEC was a blip on the radar and not a sign of things to come.
"When they get back in January, all the way until they report in August, as coaches, we coach them on the football field 15 times. Months and months, we only get 15 days," Pinkel said. "So the work that they have to put in on their fundamentals at every position, not only quarterback, the constant improvement on fundamentals is done with their work ethic and their extra work."
Five questions about the Tigers
Biggest thing you learned about Mizzou this spring?
Honestly, a lot less than we have in the past. For the first time in his 13 years, Gary Pinkel closed off access to the vast majority of practice. We don't yet know all the tweaks and changes Henson will make to the Missouri offense. But it would be a smart move to put a heavy emphasis on the running game. Henry Josey is returning from injury and, along with Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough, gives the Tigers as much tailback depth as they've perhaps ever had under Pinkel. Both Franklin and Mauk are capable runners as well. Mauk has more speed, but Franklin is tougher to bring down. Of course, that will require the line to be both healthier and better than it was a season ago.
Questions Mizzou received answers to this spring?
First of all, the Tigers found a number one wideout. Dorial Green-Beckham came out of high school with virtually unreachable expectations as a true freshman. While he had a decent season, DGB was nearly invisible in the first six games or so. Combined with an early season arrest that cost him a game, Green-Beckham finished fourth on the team in receptions and yards, though he did lead the Tigers in touchdown catches. This spring, he led the team in receiving yardage in all three scrimmages and looks ready to make the leap to go-to guy and fulfill some of those expectations everyone had a year ago.
Missouri also struggled with bad snaps throughout virtually all of last season. Both Mitch Morse and Brad McNulty played center and the Tiger quarterbacks found themselves scrambling for snaps quite often, which threw off the timing of the offense from the get go. Sophomore Evan Boehm - who started every game as a true freshman last year - moved to center this spring and looked good. He had one scrimmage in which he had a problem snapping the ball, but overall, they were on time and on target. Boehm is the best lineman and the best leader up front. His move to center should give the Tigers a three-year anchor for a unit that had more than its share of problems a season ago.
Questions still lingering for Mizzou after spring?
First and foremost, who is the quarterback? Every team is reliant on its signal caller, but Missouri's offense perhaps more than most. Throughout Pinkel's tenure, the Tigers have been able to hang with just about anybody when the quarterback plays well. When he doesn't, they've lost games most felt they should have won. Mauk was the better QB in the first spring scrimmage, but after the break, Franklin outperformed him. Mauk's two interceptions in the spring game left Franklin No. 1 on the depth chart heading into fall camp, but this is a question that won't have a resolution until at least another scrimmage or two in August. Ideally, Missouri will have a starter named by mid-month, but it's not out of the question the battle could stretch until the week of the first game.
In addition, Missouri didn't kick the ball very well in camp. Andrew Baggett was the placekicker last season. He is expected to receive a push from walk-on Nick Coffman. But neither one was accurate or consistent in the spring.
Players who stepped up during spring?
A couple of young cornerbacks really made their names known. David Johnson and John Gibson each had interceptions in the spring game to cap good camps. Either one could push Randy Ponder for the starting spot opposite all-SEC candidate E.J. Gaines. On the offensive side, both Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and youngster Connor McGovern drew praise this spring. With Boehm's move to center, one of them will almost certainly start and the other should challenge Max Copeland for the other starting spot at guard. Jimmie Hunt, who is one of Mizzou's most electric players with the ball in his hands, had a great spring going before an ankle injury kept him out for the final week. Hunt has a good shot to crack the starting rotation if he can stay healthy this fall.
Players who needs to step up heading into the summer?
One of the quarterbacks. Which one probably doesn't much matter, but things will be much easier for Pinkel and his staff if one guy takes charge of the race. On the other side of the ball, Missouri is going to need someone to take the lead on the defensive line. Michael Sam had a fantastic spring, but it wouldn't hurt if Kony Ealy delivered on the potential and promise he has on the other side of the line. The Tigers aren't likely to be able to replace what Sheldon Richardson gave them with one player, so everyone on the line has to be a little bit better. Ealy can move inside and play defensive tackle when the Tigers go with three defensive ends on the front four in passing situations.
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