Editor's note: This is the eighth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Missouri Tigers.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Who saw that coming?
Missouri's first go-round in the SEC couldn't have left the newbie Tigers in a more precarious position. A 5-7 season in 2012 resulted in the departure of offensive coordinator David Yost, a long-time assistant for Gary Pinkel, and plenty of question's surrounding the job security of the head coach himself.
The follow-up squashed all doubts, about both the future of Pinkel in Columbia and the future of Missouri in the SEC.
A 12-2 season, an SEC East championship and a win in the 2014 Cotton Bowl resulted in a top-five finish for Missouri. Yes, these Tigers could hang in their new home. But the departure of their three best defenders, their top running back and a three-year starter at quarterback means Missouri faces the burden of proving that 2013 wasn't an aberration -- much like it did after the disastrous 2012 season.
"Last year, we were like wounded animals," Pinkel said following the opening of spring practice. "There was such an excitement to get going again."
"We've got to do it again," receiver Bud Sasser said. "Let everybody know that last year wasn't a fluke. We're here to work."
Much of that pressure falls on the shoulders of Maty Mauk, who was electric and inconsistent in four starts at quarterback in 2013. An unknown quantity during his relief effort in the middle of last season, Mauk went 3-1 in those starts and kept Missouri afloat in its race to a divisional championship. He made plays with both his arm and legs, and finished the season with 11 passing touchdowns and two interceptions, running for 229 yards and another touchdown on 41 carries.
The inconsistency reared its head in the form of a low completion percentage. Mauk completed 51.1-percent of his passes for the year, finishing just one start with more completions than incompletions. This spring, Mauk worked to become more of a steady presence as a passer, and the results were promising. He completed over 60-percent of his passes in the three open scrimmages, finishing with a 64-percent mark. He didn't throw an interception in those settings, either.
His performance impressed the coaching staff enough that Pinkel officially named Mauk the 2014 starter following the spring game.
"Maty is our starter," Pinkel said. "I think he's had a great spring. He's a lot better player than he was."
After an intriguing redshirt freshman season, Mauk is no longer an unknown. Likewise, Missouri is no longer unknown after a resurgent sophomore performance in the SEC. With a target on its collective back, Missouri coaches and players know there's no taking anyone by surprise in 2014.
FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT MISSOURI
SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
What's the biggest thing we learned about Missouri this spring?
Besides Mauk's improvement, we learned that Missouri's defensive line may not miss a beat in 2014. The Tigers lost their two starting defensive ends after the 2013 season, as Michael Sam graduated and Kony Ealy declared early for the draft. Losing the SEC co-defensive player of the year and another player who was an all-SEC performer on the same line could be devastating for some teams.
Missouri's pass rush was so deadly in 2013 because it utilized a rotation of four defensive ends who were very similar in talent level. With Ealy and Sam gone, Markus Golden and Shane Ray move up into starting positions, and each had a strong spring. The duo combined for 11 sacks in 2014, so the cupboard is by no means bare with their return.
Their back-ups, however, were more unknown. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris step into the roles vacated by Golden and Ray, as players who can add depth to defensive end and allow Missouri to make line changes and keep their ends fresh. The coaches loved to talk about Loud and Harris before the spring; after the media finally got a look at them in scrimmage settings, it was easy to see why the staff covets them. They still have a lot to prove in game settings, but as long as the top four defensive ends stay healthy, Missouri's defensive line should be in good shape to continually harass quarterbacks for another year.
What's the biggest question Missouri answered this spring?
After losing their top cornerback in E.J. Gaines off a secondary that was bend-but-don't-break in 2013, along with two other starters at corner and safety, Missouri's secondary entered the spring with questions. But after the three scrimmages, those players made it clear that while they may lack some experience, there is enough talent to go along.
Aarion Penton, a rising sophomore, made good on promise shown as a true freshman in 2013. He was Missouri's best cornerback and intercepted two passes in one scrimmage, and is a shoo-in to hold down one starting job, even after a minor drug arrest that resulted in a short suspension.
The other cornerback position is a little more unsettled, but redshirt sophomore John Gibson seemed to turn a corner and went wire-to-wire atop the depth chart. Joining him in the competition at that spot are David Johnson, true freshman Logan Cheadle and junior college transfer Kenya Dennis, who all showed potential.
At safety, three-year starter Braylon Webb will again be a steady presence, and Ian Simon -- formerly Missouri's nickelback -- looks more comfortable playing deeper off the line of scrimmage. The Tigers' new nickelback, Duron Singleton, is a bigger, more physical player who said he prefers to play close to the line.
So, if the question entering the spring was, "Will Missouri have enough talent to replace the loses in the defensive backfield?" -- the answer was a resounding, "Yes."
Which questions still linger?
How will Missouri replace the losses at wide receiver? The Tigers already lost two of their top three receivers because of graduation, but the dismissal of former No. 1-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham left a big hole at the position. Missouri has talent, including a couple of former four-star recruits, but no receiver asserted themselves as a go-to guy this spring.
What becomes of the linebacker rotation? Missouri lost leading tackler Andrew Wilson to graduation, and the rest of the linebacker rotation went through a rash of injuries. Returning starter Kentrell Brothers and redshirt sophomore Donavin Newsom each required shoulder surgery that ended their springs early. Darvin Ruise, who played extensively in 2013, started the spring by getting demoted before finishing with two strong scrimmages. Michael Scherer started the spring at SAM linebacker before moving to the middle in Brothers' absence. It wasn't a poor spring by the group, but questions remain about who the playmakers will be at linebacker for 2014.
Finally, can the running backs stay healthy? Missouri was the second-leading rushing team in the SEC in 2013, but lost Henry Josey to the draft. His top back-ups, Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough, each suffered minor injuries in 2013, and were again limited in the spring. With Josey gone, it's imperative that the duo stays healthy in 2014, but there are still questions surrounding their durability.
Which players stepped up this spring?
At running back, Morgan Steward made the biggest strides, mainly in the first scrimmage where he ran for 117 yards and three touchdowns on 13 carries. Listed at 6-foot, 205-pounds, he's a bigger back than Missouri typically uses, but after getting rid of some fumbling problems, it looks like he'll play a big role in the run game this season.
Redshirt freshman J'Mon Moore was Missouri's leading receiver and showed steady hands. He could be a player to watch as he'll get his first game action this fall.
Both Connor McGovern and Mitch Morse changed positions on the offensive line, becoming the Tigers' right and left tackle, respectively. Each did a solid job and suddenly a line that lost two starters looks much more settled than expected.
Early enrollee freshman cornerback Logan Cheadle showed he is ahead of schedule, too, and he made a strong case to avoid a redshirt with his play this spring.
Which players need to step up this summer?
You can start at receiver, where Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Texas transfer Darius White all need to step up in the absence of DGB, Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington. If Missouri is looking for consistent big-threat receivers, the focus begins with that trio of seniors.
Defensive tackle Harold Brantley was dropped on the depth chart for undisclosed reasons, although Pinkel did say he lost weight because of an illness. Brantley was a part-time starter in 2013, and he's Missouri's most athletic tackle. A strong summer could set the interior of Missouri's line up for a big year.
Missouri's tight end position has been an enigma the past few years, as it's shifted to a more traditional, pro-style role on the team. But Sean Culkin, a redshirt sophomore, has been billed as a potential playmaker there -- we just haven't really seen it yet. The staff said his blocking has improved, which may have been one reason his action was limited in 2013. Either way, if tight end is going to develop more of a role on the offense, Culkin has to continue to improve.