The Missouri Tigers concluded a very productive spring with the Black & Gold Scrimmage, wrapping up what had been a very competitive spring throughout the team. Many players improved during the 15 spring practices, clarity was increased for a few position battles, and unprecedented team depth was developed.
Heading into spring practice, there were several questions to be answered for the Tigers. Chief among those concerns was identifying which two players would handle the football on every offensive play. With senior center Tim Barnes, and two-year starting QB Blaine Gabbert having each departed, the Tigers had to determine who will take over the duties at those two key positions.
The center position has come into pretty clear focus this spring, with Travis Ruth having solidified his hold on the starting job. In fact, Ruth performed so well that coaches told ShowMeMizzou.com that they haven't had to redistribute any of the responsibilities of the position. Ruth has shown that he will be able to step right in for Barnes, and make the line calls, and handle the position in a similar manner as did Barnes. And, Ruth's performance allowed the staff the confidence to move Justin Britt, who was competing for the starting center position, but struggled with snapping the football, to the outside, at left tackle, where his superior athleticism can be utilized. That move was also prompted, or aided, by the solid performance of Mitch Morse, as the back-up center.
While Britt was splitting time at left tackle with Jack Meiners, Meiners was moving inside to left guard, where Meiners' superior strength gives him a decided advantage. On the post-spring depth chart, Meiners and the versatile Britt are each listed as second-string guards, Britt on the left side, and Meiners on the right.
Another player who began the spring at tackle, Mark Hill, also moved inside during the spring, and played at right guard, on the second unit, during the final scrimmages, but was listed on the third-team following the spring. Anthony Gatti and Chris Freeman improved throughout the spring, and look to be in line to see the field this fall on the outside. Each were listed on the second unit coming out of the spring. Elvis Fisher and Austin Wuebbels each missed all, or most, of the spring with an injury, but both are expected to be at full strength by August. Coming out of the spring, Missouri's offensive line appears to be set, and barring multiple injuries, is in very good shape for 2011.
The QB battle holds great interest. James Franklin began the spring, and also closed it out, as the starter. But, Tyler Gabbert performed very well, and earned the most-improved QB award handed out at the Spring Game. Gabbert passed Ashton Glaser on the depth chart, and even moved ahead of Franklin, for a time. But, after spring break, Franklin quickly reclaimed the starting spot, and then solidified his hold on it through the end of the spring.
Franklin's clearly ahead, at the close of spring practice, but his lead is not insurmountable. It's still a relatively close competition between Franklin and Gabbert for the position of starting QB. The only real separation that has occurred is that the top two QBs, Franklin and Gabbert, have distanced themselves somewhat from Glaser. This competition will continue on into August.
The competition at the TB position has been extremely closely contested, and it was encouraging to see all four returning TBs perform so well this spring. Kendial Lawrence had a great spring, and moved ahead of De'Vion Moore heading into the Spring Game. The Post-Spring Depth Chart has Moore and Lawrence as co-starters. Henry Josey performed well this spring, but didn't do enough to move ahead of either of the veterans. Marcus Murphy had a great spring, as well, and really helped himself in the eyes of the coaching staff. Greg White was having a very good spring, and appears to have entered the mix for playing time, but an injury cut short spring ball for White, and limited his opportunities.
At the TE position, Eric Waters moved ahead of Andrew Jones for the position of back-up to returning All-American Michael Egnew. Waters has really progressed, and is emerging as a real play maker, and heir-apparent.
There wasn't as much movement at the WR position this spring as I expected. Even at the close of spring, I didn't think that the depth chart necessarily reflected what I had seen on the practice field during the spring. But, there were a couple of significant moves within the depth chart at WR, where there's a very close competition for playing time, with eight WRs bunched in behind starter T.J. Moe for the other two starting spots, as well as for the back-up spots. Spring ball concluded with Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson, last year's starters, still listed atop the depth chart on the outside.
L'Damian Washington moved onto the second unit, behind Jackson at the X WR spot, and Gahn McGaffie performed consistently, in holding down the back-up job behind Moe, at the H WR position. The three 2010 signees, Marcus Lucas, Jimmie Hunt, and Bud Sasser, were each listed with the third team offense for the final scrimmage, but from what I've seen this spring, those three are very much in the mix for starting jobs this fall.
At the beginning of spring ball, early enrollee, and 2011 signee, Wesley Leftwich appeared to be overwhelmed. But after spring break, Leftwich began to show improvement, and flashes of that elite speed. I think there's an outside chance that Leftwich could see the field this year, and provide Missouri with a field-stretching deep threat.
The post-spring depth chart was even more puzzling to me, looking very similar to the pre-spring depth chart, with Sasser and Hunt stacked up behind Moe and McGaffie, at the H WR position.
On the defensive side of the football, spring practice demonstrated a wealth of depth and talent, and that is no more evident than at the DE position. Brad Madison was as productive, and as dominant, as any player on the field this spring. Jacquies Smith is playing as well as at any time in his career. Kony Ealy stood out all spring, and earned a promotion onto the second unit. Michael Sam held onto a second-team spot, as well.
Brayden Burnett played very well this spring, but the quality depth at this position have Burnett and Marcus Malbrough, who was injured for much of the spring, listed with the third-team defense. Matt Hoch quickly adapted to playing defense this spring. He played well, and shows great promise, but at the close of spring, he's on the fourth-team defense.
The development of depth on the inside is one of the biggest stories of the spring. With Dominique Hamilton on the sideline for much of the spring, several DTs competed for a starting spot. Marvin Foster spent the latter part of the spring on the first team, and was selected as the most improved at his position, before being listed on the second unit on the post-spring depth. Lucas Vincent played very well this spring, and moved up onto the second unit for the final scrimmages, getting reps with the starting defense. On the post-spring depth chart, Vincent is listed on the third-team defense, behind Hamilton and Foster, at the NT position. Jimmy Burge heads into the summer listed behind Terrell Resonno, at the DT position.
The development, and improvement, by Foster and Vincent, are the big stories, as both of these young DTs significantly elevated their level of play this spring, and appear to be ready to make significant contributions this fall.
Injuries had a huge effect on the LB position this spring. Three of the Tigers' top six LBs, as listed on the post-spring depth chart, Will Ebner, Luke Lambert, and Donovan Bonner, missed most, or all, of the spring. The other three, Zaviar Gooden, Andrew Wilson, and Darvin Ruise, each assumed starting positions throughout the spring. Wilson performed brilliantly in the middle, but is listed as the starter at the SLB position, on the post-spring depth chart. Ruise worked with the first unit all spring at the SLB, but heads into the summer backing up Gooden, at the WLB.
There will be great competition between these six LBs this fall. The Missouri staff has plenty of options.
Heading into the spring, some of the major questions facing Missouri on the defensive side of the football were to be found in the secondary, where Kenji Jackson is the only returning starter. Jackson had a great spring, and provided quality leadership for the many young players around him. Like Zaviar Gooden, Jackson is a quiet leader, who leads by example, and has the respect of those around him.
There was quite a competition this spring for the other safety spots, and at the close of spring, Tavon Bolden is listed as the other starter. Bolden's a big hitter who can run, and he doubles as a LB, when the Tigers go to five DBs. Matt White is Bolden's back-up, and the first DB on the field in the nickel. White has displayed a real nose for the football. Jackson's backed up by Kenronte Walker, another talented, and athletic player. Third-stringers, Braylon Webb and Daniel Easterly, each performed well this spring, and earned regular reps with the second unit. Easterly is rangy, and has shown a nose for the football, and Webb is fast becoming a real valuable player. He has size and speed, can cover, and is real physical, as well. Webb just lacks experience to become an outstanding safety for the Tigers.
Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines began and ended the spring as the starting corners. Gaines is developing into the best CB of the Coach Pinkel era. Gaines is physical, can cover, has catch-up speed, and excellent ball skills. Edwards is the more experienced corner, who has continued to improve.
Robert Steeples and Trey Hobson each began and ended the spring as the second-team CBs. Both played very well during the spring, holding onto their second-string jobs, despite being pushed from behind, especially by Tristen Holt, who is a very talented player. Holt shows signs that he will move ahead of the veterans, and become Missouri's number three CB. He's physical, and can run and cover. He too, has very good ball skills.
Xavier Smith was having a good spring, until he got hurt, and ended up missing the final scrimmages. That opened things up for Randy Ponder, who seized that opportunity to climb up onto the third-team defense.
Trey Barrow's punting this spring exceeded expectations, as the talented junior averaged almost 45 yards/punt, and with consistently good hang time. He just needs to work on becoming more consistent at dropping the ball inside the 10-yard line.
Overall, it was a great spring for Missouri, with lots of close competition at almost every position on the field, and with the development of quality depth throughout. A couple of key competitions, at QB, and at WR, will be impacted during the summer workouts, as players continue to work on their own to improve, and to develop chemistry and timing in the passing game.
Another quality that will begin to be addressed during the summer, but won't really be fully manifested until a starting QB is named, is the issue of team leadership from the QB position. From my observations, either of James Franklin or Tyler Gabbert possesses the requisite leadership abilities. Just as each of them possesses somewhat different playing abilities, they each possess their own unique leadership style, both of which can be effective.