All posts by Seth Merenbloom

Missouri versus South Dakota St: What to Watch For

This Saturday morning the rooster can sleep in as the day is awakened with the crack of a drum stick to a Kevlar coated drum head.  Rise and shine football fans, Mizzou Tiger football opens the 2014 football season against the South Dakota St. Jackrabbits.
There should be no concern regarding who wins this game.  This will be the Tigers from start to finish.  Little if anything can be squeezed from these non-conference exhibition games.  There are, however, four areas that Tiger fans should lend their focus.

Who Catches On?

Who begins establishing themselves at the receiver position? Bud Sasser, Jimmy Hunt and Darius White return with the most cleat-to-turf experience.  None have been expected to carry the load an entire season though all three have shown glimpses of being dynamic playmakers.  If not one of these veterans, it will need to be either J’Mon Moore, Lawrence Lee or Nate Brown.

Who Runs With It? 

Russell Hansbrough is the clear cut number 1 tailback. Hansbrough has nothing to prove on Saturday.  Marcus Murphy will continue doing what he does. And that is EVERYTHING.  Morgan Steward will be nursing a hip injury and should not even be suited up against the Jackrabbits.  So who plays the role of tailback number 3 Saturday? Ish Witter. True freshman Ish Witter burns the redshirt and needs to run up, under , around and thru the Jackrabbits.  As we get into the second half, it should be a safe assumption the Witter carries the majority of the load.  Prove that you are ready as a true freshman and leave your mark on the Jackrabbits.

Stuck In The Middle With You?

Josh Augusta. 6’4”, 335 lbs.  They say he is bigger than he has ever been. They say he is stronger  than he has ever been. They say he is more athletic than he has ever been now that his body fat is down to 28% (A shake for breakfast, a shake for dinner and a sensible dinner finally paid off). Now prove all of those sentiments big fella. A kid the size of a small house should push the Jackrabbits offensive line around the line of scrimmage and live in the backfield. Live up to the hype. If you do, I’ll gladly call you Baby Sapp.

Who Roams Free?

The most athletic group of linebackers Gary Pinkel has ever had at Mizzou.  That was professed by Pinkel himself.  Prove it.  Cover the field sideline to sideline Saturday. Fill gaps Saturday.  Actually defend the screen pass if presented with the opportunity on Saturday.  PROVE. IT.  Tiger fans should pay particular attention to backup middle linebacker Eric Beisel. The young man gave himself a nickname in high school. He goes by Zeus and anointed himself this moniker. Zeus has a unique look as well; bright red hair with a bleached beard.  It is said that you aren’t cocky if you can back it up. We shall see.

2014 Missouri Tiger Offensive Outlook: The Hunt For Mauktober

faurot
 
Give or take a few days, the 2014 season will be known as The Hunt for Mauktober.  South Carolina, Georgia and Florida will play the part of the hunted October prey with Maty Mauk looking to claim ownership of the SEC East in October.
Mauk is not going to be the high completion percentage QB that Mizzou because used to with Franklin, Gabbert and Daniel.  What Mauk does bring to the field is a gun slinger mentality.  Mauk’s predecessors played primarily under offensive coordinator Dave Yost.  Those offenses relied on a high completion percentage and used a high number of check downs.  Josh Henson’s offensive system does not live and die by 60% completion rates.  Mauk may only complete 50% of his passes but those completions will go for long gains.  I would be more concerned if that 50% completion rate was feast or famine and Mauk is not prone to turnovers, so there is little famine involved in the risk/reward trade off with Mauk.
Mauk
Evan Boehm will be anchoring the offensive line unit protecting Mauk.  This group lost two Seniors from last year, but I believe there will be little if any drop off in production from this group. Boehm returns at Center along with Mitch Morse and Conner McGovern.  The remaining two starting spots should be filled by Anthony Gatti and Mitch Hall.  With three of the five being returning starters, the team returns a significant amount of leadership on the line and Gatti and Hall each saw playing time last season.  It could also be argued that this is the most SEC ready offensive line Pinkel has had at MU. There isn’t a starter who is listed at less than 315 pounds.  This should help keep the offense competitive when going up against defensive lines like South Carolina’s.
Missouri v Kentucky     offensive line
In regards to Mizzou’s skill position players, the national media wrote the Tigers off after DGB rode his Sooner Schooner to Norman, OK.  Adding to this loss was the suspension of Levi Copelin.  One of the things that Pinkel has proven at MU is that he always has productive WRs.  This year should be no different.  One of the benefits of DGB being off the team is that it created more competition at the receiver position.  Based on scrimmage reports, Lawrence Lee, Nate Brown and Shaun Culkin appear ready to rise to the occasion.  The biggest difference maker of the bunch will be Marcus Murphy.  Is Murphy a WR? No. But he is arguably MU’s best skill position player when operating in space.  I look forward to seeing how Henson schemes Murphy into the offensive game plan this year.
Murphy  hansbrough
At RB, the Tigers lost Henry Josey when he decided to turn pro a year early.  Josey planted his foot in the ground better than just about anyone and had incredible acceleration.  These are tough attributes to replace but I trust that Russell Hansbrough is up to the challenge.  After looking at highlights from last season, Hansborough has similar acceleration but is a slightly thicker RB.  Backing Hansborough up will be Morgan Steward.  Steward is a JR and came in with a lot of hype.  It is now time for him to produce.  With Murphy spending time in the slot, this bumps Steward up the depth chart and will offer him more touches.  I see little if any drop in production from the RBs. In part due to their talent and in part due to a formidable offensive line.
The Hunt for Mauktober begins in a little less than a week.  Cue Thunderstruck and lets roll.

2014 Missouri Defensive Line

NCAA Football: Missouri at Georgia
It all starts up front.  Plain and simple. Tiger fans should not like what the Tigers offer on the defensive line they should love what will take the field this season.  Everyone on the 2-deep saw action last season with the exception of redshirt freshman Charles Harris and Marcus Loud.
 
Starting at defensive end will be Shane Ray and Markus Golden.   Everyone in the SEC is aware of Golden and everyone in country should be aware of his presence.  Considering the percentage of snaps he took part in and his statistical output, he was arguably the best defensive end Missouri had last year.  That is correct; not as good as Michael Sam, but BETTER.  Shane Ray has potential and received enough playing time last season to be in position to maximize that potential this season.
Missouri v Georgia shane ray
 
 
Part of what made the Tiger’s defensive ends so productive last season was the fact that they were able to rotate four players throughout the game. There was always a fresh player on the field and this certainly helped the defensive finish games off in the fourth quarter.   This rotation based scheme should be no different this year.  Harris and Loud are the backups to Ray and Golden with each being redshirt freshman.  Tiger fans should not be concerned about a lag in production. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski has a reputation of coaching his lineman up and creating production.
 
The interior of the defensive line is going to be what makes this team contend for the SEC East once again.  Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Josh Augusta and Harold Brantley all saw playing time last season.  Hoch may be one of the more unappreciated lineman in the SEC.  Hoch is not a power player; he instead relies on his quickness to get in the back field. Vincent lines up next to him and plays with power. Vincent battled a pectoral injury last season, but being fully healed, he should create enough matchup issues on the line that Hoch will have all-conference caliber statistics this season.
Matt Hoch Lucas Vincent
Hoch and Vincent’s backups are Josh Augusta and Harold Brantley.  Brantley is going to be a flat out stud on the line.  At 290 pounds, he is an interior lineman. His athleticism provides the flexibility of playing him at defensive end as well.
 
Josh Augusta. What is there to say? He was a message board sensation before ever stepping on campus. *I am looking at you Tigerboard* He played as a true freshman and put up decent numbers. Statistically his numbers were similar to Sheldon Richardson’s, but I would suggest he didn’t have the same kind of impact as Richardson. So numbers are nice but are not always indicative of the true value of a player.  A lot should be expected of Augusta based on his true freshman numbers coupled with being a year older.
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As a unit, this should be the best defensive line that the Tigers have had in a long time.  They will produce numbers of their own while also placing a lackluster linebacking corp in position to be productive.  This is the season that MU has a defense that resembles what people consider to be an SEC defense and it all starts up front.

2014 Missouri Position Preview: The Linebackers

Let’s get to know the Missouri linebackers for the 2014 football season. The projected two-deep with games played and starts are as follows:
 

Starts Games Played
Darvin Ruise 0 14
KentrellBrothers 14 14
MichaelScherer 0 14
DonavinNewsom 0 10
Eric Beisel 0 0
Clarence Green 0 10

The starters are Ruise, Brothers and Scherer.
brothers
 
 
 
This is an experienced unit that is returning one starter.  Unlike the secondary, however, I believe this group has a lot to prove this season.  The 2013 team defense was strong, but the linebackers were the glaring weakness.
 
The defense came up with 20 interceptions last season which ranked fifth nationally. Missouri’s linebackers accounted for 4 of those 20 interceptions.  The total defense also forced 14 fumbles with the linebackers having created 1 of those.  There were also 107 tackles for loss with 19.5 of those coming from the linebackers.
 
There simply was not enough disruption from this group of players last season.  So much of what a linebacker does is dependent on what goes on in front of them with the defensive lineman and, considering the production of the defensive line, the Mizzou linebackers under performed last year.
 
Other than the kicking woes of Andrew Baggett, the inability to defend the screen pass was the loudest complaint from last year.  This inability to defend the screen made things interesting against Toledo, Arkansas St and South Carolina. Mizzou escaped those games with a 2-1 record.  And if Baggett hits one more kick, the linebackers would have been bailed out a third time.  Missouri’s linebackers consistently lost depth last year and allowed receivers to get behind them.  Part of Dave Steckel’s defensive philosophy is keeping the action in front of you.  This is not something the linebackers showed success in.
 
Magnifying this issue of discipline was an overall lack of speed.  A lack of speed contributed to Missouri’s inability to defend Auburn’s run game in the SEC Championship game.  Tre Mason routinely made it outside of the tackle box and the Mizzou linebackers could not make up ground.
 
Will the 2014 linebacking unit play with more discipline and show added speed? To be honest, I have my doubts.  Kentrell Brothers will be solid at the middle linebacker position.  After that, all bets are off.  Michael Scherer will be a first year starter at SAM who, while having played in 14 games last season, did not stand out in those games.  Darvin Ruise starts at the WILL position.  At 6-1 240, I fear that Ruise is too bulked up to play sideline to sideline.  Every player is different, but this was Shawn Weatherspoon’s issue during his senior year. William Moore was victim to the same criticism. Each bulked up and lost a step.  It was pronounced enough that NFL scouts commented about Missouri players bulking up and losing a step.
 
There is reason for hope and his name is Donavin Newsom.  Newsom is currently the backup to Ruise. He stands 6-2 230 and played primarily on special teams as a true freshman.  I have been eagerly anticipating the speed he brings to the field as a linebacker and I believe he will be a welcomed addition to Steckel’s 4-3 defense.
 
As is the case with the secondary, the linebackers had an incoming freshmen enroll in January.  Brandon Lee, 6-2 215, hails from Indianapolis, Indiana and was a coveted 3-star recruit.  Based on the players in front of him at the SAM, Lee has an opportunity to move into the 2-deep by the start of the season.  Michael Scherer is currently the starter, but appeared lost and out of position in his limited 2013 playing time. If Lee took full advantage of Spring ball and is a quick learner, his speed could also prove to be an asset this season.
 
If the defense is exposed again in 2014 it will be at the hands of the linebacking core.  Will they have bulked up to much? Will they play disciplined, assignment oriented football? Will they be able to play sideline-to-sideline? These are all questions that will need to be answered and could prove to be the difference between a return trip to the SEC Championship game and sitting at home December 6.
 

2014 Missouri Tiger Position Preview: The Secondary

Let’s get to know the Missouri secondary for the 2014 football season. The projected two-deep with games played and starts are as follows:

 

Starts Games Played
Aarion Penton,

2

14

John Gibson

0

12

David Johnson

0

12

Anthony Sherrils

0

0

Braylon Webb

14

14

Duron Singleton

0

12

Ian Simon

5

13

Cortland Browning

0

14

 

 

The starters are Penton, Gibson, Webb and Simon.

Penton John Gibson ian simon braylon webb

 

Even with the graduation of future NFL draftee E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder, the secondary returns a seasoned group of players.  Anthony Sherrils is the only player on the current two-deep to see no action last year.  His redshirt was due to having to recover from an automobile accident. All reports indicate that he is ready to go at 100%.  Sherrils should not take his inclusion on the two-deep for granted.  He slid into the position in part because of the transfer of Daniel Easterly.

The defense came up with 20 interceptions last season which ranked fifth nationally. Missouri’s secondary accounted for 15 of those 20 interceptions.  Led by Penton and Gibson, the secondary returns 6 of those interceptions heading into the season.

Starting at cornerback this year will be sophomores Aarion Penton and John Gibson.  Each played well last year, with Penton being the standout.  He was a formidable defender against both the run and pass.  It should not surprise the Missouri fan base to see defensive coordinator Dave Steckel play both Penton and Gibson in press coverage more than we have seen in the past.  The reason being is that this is arguably the best secondary that Missouri has had in the Gary Pinkel era.  You would have to go back to the old Big 8 days of the late 1970s/early 1980s to find a Missouri secondary as stout as I expect this one to be.   That secondary was anchored by future San Francisco 49er Eric Wright.

Newcomers at cornerback will be Junior College transfer Kenya Dennis and true freshman Logan Cheadle.  Some other media outlets have listed Dennis as a safety; however, this is not the case. In his recruitment from Hinds Community College, he was projected as a cornerback. Due to his coverage skills coupled with his size – think undersized linebacker at 6’0”, 210lbs – Dennis is slated to play the slot receiver.

Logan Cheadle is a local product from the Kansas City suburb of Lee’s Summit.  Cheadle graduated from Lee’s Summit West in December 2013 and was an early January 2014 University of Missouri enrollee.  Unlike other high profile recruits, Cheadle has benefited from having participated in Spring scrimmages.  Expectations are high for the true freshman as he has been touted as being further ahead at this point in his career than Gaines was as a freshman.  Expect Cheadle to play in much the same capacity as Penton did last season.

At safety, Ian Simon is a returning starter with Braylon Webb penciled in to start opposite of him.  Both are solid players who will have benefited  from another year in Steckel’s system.  Duron Singleton also returns as the primary backup and he played well last year, particularly against the run.  Singleton sees himself as the muscle of the secondary as his self-proclaimed nickname is “Dahitman.”  With the experience and ability of the cornerbacks, having Singleton and Dennis on the field at the same time should give Steckel flexibility in his nickel and dime packages to disguise scheme and coverage.  Think his “Candy” defensive line packages from the Aldon Smith years only tailored towards the secondary. Combining the strengths of the secondary with the depth of the defensive line, could Missouri fans see situational 3-2-6 alignments?  When both Dennis and Singleton are on the field together that should improve the sideline-to-sideline speed of the defense.

Based on the experience and physical nature of the secondary, this group of defenders should be able to defend equally as well against the spread oriented offenses of the conference such as Auburn and the more traditional style of offenses like Alabama.  The Mizzou fan base will see corners who are just as comfortable sticking their noses in behind the line of scrimmage as they are going one-on-one in pass coverage.

The primary weakness of this group will be the safety position.  These safeties are solid, but none of them have proven to be ball hawks.  Once summer scrimmages begin it will be worth paying attention to true freshman Tavon Ross.  The true freshman from Cochran, GA is considered to be an elite level athlete.  If his athleticism allows him to mask his deficiencies in technique, he could find his way into the safety rotation as a young player with a nose for the finding the ball.

I am high on Missouri’s secondary and have lofty expectations for them as a group.  If they were a stock, I would be yelling, “buy! buy! buy!” The group is talented and will also benefit from playing 5 teams who are breaking in new quarterbacks.