When Mizzou kicks off spring football practice this coming week it will have been a little over two months since the team’s 27-17 Gasparilla Bowl loss to Wake Forest. Since then, players have transferred out while others have transferred in. A handful of players declared for the NFL Draft while some others decided they wanted one more go around in Columbia.
There are a number of storylines heading into spring football practice and the Black & Gold spring football game on March 18, but here, we are going to highlight the five storylines we think are the most important.
1. Injuries piling up at quarterback
Going into spring football it appeared that Sam Horn and Miami transfer Jake Garcia would be jockeying for position in the team’s quarterback competition while last season’s starter, Brady Cookrecovers from offseason surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right throwing shoulder.
It now appears that Garcia will likely have a chance to get a leg up on both of them after Horn left Missouri’s baseball game with some discomfort in his right throwing arm after throwing 25 pitches in 1 1/3 innings versus Florida International on Saturday.
“Obviously, he felt something,” Missouri baseball coach Steve Bieser said postgame. “We’ve got to get him checked out. Right now I don’t really want to say anything. We don’t really know.”
This obviously changes things if Horn has to miss a portion or all of spring football.
Since Horn was in the system last season he probably had a leg up on Garcia for first-team reps. Now, when practice starts next week Garcia will likely be at the helm with the first teamers while JUCO transfer walk-on Dylan Laibleas well as fellow walk-ons Brett Brown and Tommy Lock, man second and third team reps.
This was already going to be the No. 1 storyline if all three quarterbacks were healthy, but now with one out indefinitely and the other one’s spring football availability in doubt, this becomes something that could affect the Tigers’ fall camp plans.
2. Possible changes on the interior of the offensive line
The most important position on the offensive line is the blindside tackle position, which is typically the left tackle for a right-handed quarterback. Mizzou has got left tackle covered with Javon Foster returning, and now it likely has its right tackle position covered with former Eastern Michigan Marcellus Johnson coming over.
Johnson, who started over 30 games for the Eagles at left tackle, will likely be in the driver’s seat to be the team’s new starting right tackle to start spring football.
So, Mizzou has its book ends in place, but the questions at left guard, center and right guard remain.
Connor Tollison struggled mightily at center throughout the season and tied with guard Mitchell Walters for the most penalties among players returning in 2023 with seven. He also had to be helped off the field in the first half of the bowl game, so it’s unclear how bad that injury was and what his status is.
Bence Polgar transferred to Mizzou from Buffalo last year but was deemed ineligible for the season by the NCAA. It’s very possible Polgar starts spring ball as the starting center, so that may be an easier short-term fix than the guard spots, but it’s still something to watch for.
Polgar and any other interior linemen still have to earn their spots in the rotation because it’s possible when the transfer portal re-opens from May 1-15 the Tigers could still be looking to add interior linemen.
At left guard, Xavier Delgado is probably still penciled in as the starter with over 30 starts for the Tigers at the position, so obviously, his experience works to his advantage but experience doesn’t translate to playing well. He knows what he has to do and has manned the position to the right of Foster for some time, but it’s hard to imagine his status as the starter is safe.
EJ Ndoma-Ogar played well in his first start at South Carolina before getting injured early the next week versus Kentucky. If he’s healthy he may be able to compete for that left guard spot alongside Luke Griffinwho started the lone game Delgado missed last season versus Abilene Christian.
Armand Membo played well at right tackle last season but might be better slotted on the inside and could be entrenched in a position battle with Walters for the starting right guard position alongside Valen Erickson, Ma’Kyi Lee, Curtis Peagler and or Tristan Wilson figure into these plans.
3. Who will replace Isaiah McGuire, DJ Coleman and Trajan Jeffcoat at defensive end?
McGuire and Jeffcoat had been mainstays in the starting lineup for the last year and a half to two years with the former racking up 39 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and a pair of fumbles in 2022. Jeffcoat on the other hand struggled and lost his starting spot to Coleman in week 11 and never regained it. For the season, Jeffcoat recorded 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack while Coleman had 37 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Altogether, that’s 97 tackles, 24 tackles for loss, 13 sacks and five forced fumbles in production that won’t be returning in 2023.
Former Arizona State and Cardinal Ritter (MO) defensive end Joe Moore decided to transfer back to his home state to play for the Tigers and he seems likely to fill in one of the starting spots after he recorded 24 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last season. So, that’s likely one spot filled, but whoever fills the starting spot on the opposite side of the defensive line is anyone’s guess.
Remember, it’s not just the starting role(s) the Tigers have to fill in, but at least the two-deep when it comes to this position. Besides Moore, it doesn’t seem like someone is far better than the others at the moment.
4. What wide receivers will stand out?
A similar situation that happened to the Tigers’ defensive ends happened in the wide receiver room. They lost three starting-level wide receivers who played a lot of snaps although none of them declared for the draft, but instead went to the transfer portal or used all of their eligibility.
All-Southeastern Conference second-team wide receiver Dominic Lovett transferred to the reigning national champion Georgia Bulldogs, Tauskie Dove transferred to Memphis and Barrett Bannister ran out of eligibility after six seasons.
The Tigers still have Luther Burden III coming off of a good rookie campaign as their No. 1 wide receiver. They’ll also have Mookie Cooper, Peanut Houston, Chance Luper, Mekhi MillerOklahoma transfer Theo Wease and Ole Miss transfer Dennis Jackson.
Luper missed all of last season with an undisclosed medical issue, so his participation would obviously be based on if he’s cleared to participate in football activities.
With the defensive ends, it feels like the spring will be a time to learn about what some of these players can do. With the receivers, there is some decent depth at this position and it seems like there’s an understanding of what they can do. So now, it’s time to see how the head coach is Eli Drinkwitz and offensive coordinator Kirby Moore want to piece together the puzzle at this position.
5. Who differentiates themselves at tight end?
Ten receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns was the combined stat line from Tyler Stephens, Kibet Chepyator and Ryan Hoerstkamp last season. Even if a team didn’t want to use the tight end in the passing game, 10 receptions in 13 games is pretty low.
Also, it doesn’t help that Stephens and Chepyator graded out as the teams’ worst run-blockers, according to PFF College. Out of all the position battles, this one is probably the one that should be the most wide-open.
Chepyator graduated so he’s out of the mix which leaves Stephens, Hoerstkamp, Gavin McKay and Max Whisner available. McKay and Whisner redshirted last season and the team’s four-star signee Brett Norfleet, who is a pretty good run-blocker already, is still finishing up high school and won’t be available for spring football. This position is basically starting from scratch and it’s unknown if Stephens’ experience will give him a leg up in the eyes of the coaching staff, but that’s what we will figure out in a couple of days.
What the Tigers can’t do in 2023, is have a tight end or multiple tight ends who don’t positively affect the passing game or run-blocking game on a consistent basis.
This is a competition that could easily go down to week one. Someone has to stand out and someone has to win the job, but it starts in spring ball first.