The Missouri Tigers will take the field this weekend for spring practice in advance of their 120th season, coming off the team's first season since 2017 without spending at least one week ranked in the AP Top 25. Critics will point to the Tigers' failure to win a bowl game since the Citrus Bowl to close the 2014 season, while the more positive-minded will point to the program's four consecutive seasons — and six of the last eight — with a record at or above .500. With plenty of interest heading into head coach Eliah Drinkwitz's second season, here are five themes to keep an eye on as the Tigers open their spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During Missouri's Spring Practice
1. Shore up red-zone defense
The Tigers finished last season with the third-best scoring rate in the red zone, getting at least three points on 94,1 percent of their trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, third in the nation. Good, right? Yes, except that opponents had nearly the same success rate on their red-zone trips against Missouri, scoring on 91.9 percent of possessions when they made it past Missouri's 20-yard-line.
Missouri allowed 32.3 points per game last season, with five games surrendering at least 40 points, including each of the final three. So figuring out how to make some stops on defense and keep opponents off the scoreboard — or at least out of the end zone — a little more regularly when they enter the red zone would be a valuable component to helping the Tigers avoid shootouts and thus avoid needing to rely so heavily on the offense's success.
Improving in the red zone will be just one of the things on new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' to-do list this spring. Wilks, who is back in the college ranks after 14 years in the NFL, was the Arizona Cardinals head coach in 2018 and has served as the defensive coordinator for both the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns. He takes over a Missouri defense that ranked eighth in the SEC in yards allowed per game and ninth in points last season.
2. Can Badie come anywhere close to Rountree's production?
Larry Rountree III finished 2020 just 28 yards shy of eclipsing the 1,000-yard rushing mark for the second time in his career, but his four-year run in Columbia was nothing short of spectacular. With his 972 yards in 2020, he brought his career total to 3,720 yards rushing, becoming Missouri's all-time rushing leader by a non-quarterback.
Now the feature back role will shift to the shoulders of Tyler Badie, a senior who has served primarily as a complement to Rountree. Badie has amassed just 1,136 yards rushing and nine touchdowns in his three-year career, but his speed has also been utilized in the kick return game. Hoping for Badie to match what Rountree did even in just his senior season is likely a tough ask, but being a reliable presence in the backfield — whom defenses will need to at least respect — would serve the Tigers' offense well as a balance to the passing game.
3. Which receiver(s) can step up?
Speaking of the passing game, Keke Chism and Damon Hazelton led the Tigers in receiving last season with 458 and 397 yards, respectively. Neither of those totals was high enough to crack the top 20 of the SEC alone, and Heisman winner DeVonta Smith's 1,856-yard season was more than double the production of Chism and Hazelton combined.
Hazelton's graduation leaves Chism — who himself enters 2021 as a graduate student — and Badie (333 receiving yards in 2020) as the Tigers' top returning receivers. Increased production from those two — as well as from seniors Jalen Knox and speedy transfer D'ionte Smith — would definitely help to keep the offense moving forward as quarterback Connor Bazelak prepares for his senior season.
4. Search for a playmaker on defense
Just as the offense would benefit from elevated play from its skill position players with the departure of two of its leading producers, the defense will likewise look to fill a large hole as leading tackler Nick Bolton's time in Columbia has come to a close with his decision to declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. Bolton finished the 2020 season with an SEC-leading 5.5 solo tackles per game and finished among the top 40 in the FBS in total tackles in both 2019 and 2020.
The linebacker's physicality and athleticism will most certainly be missed after his three years of strong play. While not as highly heralded as Bolton, experienced players like defensive linemen Kobie Whiteside and Trajan Jeffcoat (six sacks in 2020) along with defensive back Jalani Williams will be critical pieces who return with a helpful blend of experience and production to bolster the defense and prevent much of a decline in the wake of Bolton's departure.
5. Which veteran leaders can Drinkwitz rely on?
Missouri's roster this season is quite heavily stocked with experienced talent, much more so than in Drinkwitz's first season at the helm. In 2020, the Tigers listed just 29 players as redshirt juniors, seniors, redshirt seniors, or graduate students; fast forward to this season, and that number jumps by more than 60 percent to 47: 19 redshirt juniors, 16 seniors/redshirt seniors, and 12 graduate students.
In a head coach's first season, there tends to be an adjustment period where the coaching staff and players grow increasingly accustomed to one another. Now that Drinkwitz has that inaugural campaign under his belt and over time has strengthened his relationships with his players — especially his more experienced team leaders — look for that cohesiveness to be much more heavily on display in 2021, with Tigers fans in Columbia and nationally seeking a continually improved product on the field as a result.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo by Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics, courtesy of mutigers.com)