Missouri students will return to classes Monday, and with the start of a new academic year comes a shift in the preparation for the Tiger football team. Missouri started fall camp practices on Aug. 6. During the 15 or so practices since that time, the focus of Eli Drinkwitz and his coaching staff has been implementing scheme, sharpening up situational execution and cementing the depth chart.
Drinkwitz said Aug. 16 that he wanted the remaining position battles wrapped up by the end of last week. Now, with the team’s season-opening game against Central Michigan less than two weeks away, it’s time for Missouri to start tailoring its preparation to its matchup with the Chippewas.
That means it’s also time for us to take stock of what we learned during camp and what’s left that needs answering. Members of the media were allowed to attend parts of six practices during camp, including Saturday’s open scrimmage. Here’s a rundown of what we saw.
1. The offensive line is set, or at least close to it. Missouri entered fall camp with two clear-cut starters up front in center Michael Maietti and right guard Case Cook. The other three positions have come into focus over the past week or so. Xavier Delgado, who started eight games last season at left guard, looks like he has retained the top spot there, beating out Luke Griffin. Javon Foster made the switch from right tackle, where he started one game a season ago, to left tackle and has drawn rave reviews from both coaches and teammates. There’s a chance Foster will be listed as a co-starter with Zeke Powell entering Week One, but from what we can tell, he’s gotten the lion’s share of snaps with the first team recently. It would come as a surprise if he doesn’t start. The one mystery up front comes at the other tackle spot, where Hyrin White is battling Montana State transfer Connor Wood. Wood has drawn praise for his ability to play multiple positions, but we think White will start the opener after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury.
2. The staff has high hopes for the defensive line. Before camp even began, both Drinkwitz and new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said they expected Missouri’s experience-laden defensive line to be the strength of the unit. The group has shown promise during the team’s past two scrimmages. Drinkwitz said the Tiger defense recorded nine sacks on Thursday, and the defensive front appeared to win its battles with the offensive line more times than not on Saturday.
Look for Missouri’s defense to feature a four-man front more often than not. The Tigers had moved to more three-man fronts under Ryan Walters a year ago. Defensive tackle, in particular, should feature a strong rotation. Fifth-year seniors Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers will likely start, though Darius Robinson could play just as many snaps. Both Whiteside and Robinson will look to bounce back after battling injuries last season. Junior college transfers Realus George and Daniel Robledo will likely see regular time, as well, and don’t discount true freshman Mekhi Wingo. At defensive end, the Tigers feature reigning all-SEC first-teamer Trajan Jeffcoat. Isaiah McGuire, playing defensive end full-time this season after splitting time between tackle and end a year ago, figures to start opposite him. If McGuire can generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks opposite Jeffcoat, it would bode well for the entire defense. Depth at end is the one concern for the defensive front, with Chris Turner being the only other player at the position who has recorded a sack in a Missouri uniform.
3. Blaze Alldredge will start right away. When Alldredge opted to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA and transfer to Missouri, the assumption was that he would be asked to replace Nick Bolton as the Tigers’ weakside linebacker. But you never know how a player will handle the jump from a Group of Five conference to the SEC, especially since Alldredge missed spring practices. As it turns out, Alldredge apparently wasted little time reassuring the staff that his gaudy numbers can translate, because he was working with the first-team defense less than a week into camp. Look for him and Devin Nicholson to play the vast majority of snaps at linebacker as long as they’re healthy.
4. Jaylon Carlies looks like the starter at free safety. The redshirt freshman is playing his third position in as many seasons, having been a wide receiver in high school and a cornerback a year ago. This one seems to suit him. The coaching staff moved Carlies to the spot vacated by two-year starter Tyree Gillespie during spring ball, and he has drawn nothing but praise since. Jalani Williams returned from injury to push Carlies for the starting spot during fall camp, but it looks like Carlies will start the season opener.
5. If there’s one true freshman to bank on playing a role right away, it’s Dominic Lovett. The former four-star product out of East St. Louis has quickly worked his way into the regular rotation. Lovett, who originally committed to Arizona State, brings an attribute Missouri missed from its wide receiver corps last season: the type of speed that can take the top off a defense. He connected with Connor Bazelak for a deep touchdown during a scrimmage last week. Add in the fact that Lovett looks like one of the favorites to handle punt return duties (especially with Mookie Cooper currently sidelined) and it feels logical to assume he’ll play plenty of snaps during his first college season.
1. Who is the third running back? Missouri’s coaching staff has made clear that, as long as he’s healthy, Tyler Badie will finally get a chance to operate as the feature back this season. Badie has played a change-of-pace role behind Larry Rountree III the past few seasons, carrying the ball more than 12 times in only two games during his first three seasons. He’s bulked up a bit in anticipation of more regular work. Redshirt freshman Elijah Young will likely assume Badie’s old role. However, given that Rountree averaged about 22 touches a game last season, there’s plenty of room for at least one more running back to receive regular work. The most likely contender might be redshirt senior Dawson Downing. The former walk-on has carried the ball 69 times during his college career but only had one attempt last season. True freshmen B.J. Harris and Taj Butts could have an opportunity, as well. Then there’s Michael Cox. The walk-on redshirt freshman impressed during the spring game and broke off a long touchdown run during a scrimmage early in camp. He appears to be squarely in the mix for carries.
2. Does Missouri have enough depth at tight end? It’s no mystery who the Tigers’ top two options at tight end will be this season. Look for Niko Hea to continue to lead the group in receptions while Daniel Parker Jr. serves as a key run-blocker. However, the team will likely need at least one other player at the position to play a meaningful role after Logan Christopherson medically retired. The most likely option would appear to be Messiah Swinson. The redshirt junior has been slowed by injuries during his first four seasons on campus, but he expressed optimism that he can finally use his 6-foot-8 frame to become a consistent receiving threat this season. True freshman Ryan Hoerstkamp could be asked to contribute right away, as well. The question is not whether Missouri has enough bodies at the position, but how effective those players can be if asked to play larger roles this year. The fact that two walk-on tight ends worked with the second-team offense on Saturday (albeit with Parker sidelined due to an illness) could be cause for concern.
3. How will the snaps shake out at corner? The position where the depth chart looks the most muddled right now is cornerback. Wilks plans to use three cornerbacks in his 4-2-5 base scheme. One of those spots will almost certainly go to Ennis Rakestraw, who started all 10 games as a true freshman last season. The other two, however, might still be up for grabs. Tulsa transfer Akayleb Evans and redshirt sophomore Ishmael Burdine appear to be vying for the starting spot opposite Rakestraw. Meanwhile, the other Golden Hurricane transfer, Allie Green, has been working at slot corner along with Chris Shearin, who is back after opting out of last season. Throw in converted wide receiver Kris Abrams-Draine, who Drinkwitz has praised several times throughout camp, and there’s still quite a bit of competition not only to start at cornerback but to crack the regular rotation.
Missouri has lost a few players due to medical issues during camp, including a trio of true freshmen. Defensive ends Kyran Montgomery and Jonathan Jones will both miss the entire season. Montgomery suffered a torn ACL during Saturday’s scrimmage, while Jones underwent surgery to correct an issue that was discovered during his physical exam. Another freshman, J’Marion Gooch, had an issue surface during his physical that forced him to retire from football. Drinkwitz didn’t offer specifics about the injury. Lastly, cornerback Zxaequan Reeves won’t make his Missouri debut until at least mid-season after he injured his knee during the summer.
The Tigers also have a pair of receivers who have been sidelined, although both are expected to return to the field this season, and they may even be back in time for the season opener. Cooper suffered a “lower leg injury,” and Drinkwitz said on Aug. 16 that he was expected to miss 10 to 14 days. Cooper, who transferred to Missouri from Ohio State, is expected to be heavily involved in the Missouri offense and could vie for the starting slot receiver spot. Fellow wideout Jay Maclin appears less likely to return to the field in time to face Central Michigan. Maclin is expected to miss four to six weeks due to a broken forearm.
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