The Missouri Tigers entered the 2011 season with a first-year starter at QB, in sophomore James Franklin. Prior to the season, Coach Pinkel talked about transitioning to a new starting QB, and how important it would be for everyone around Franklin to have their best years. Missouri was returning 9 starters from an offense that had scored 29.9 points/game in 2010.
As it turned out, it was the new guys, Franklin, and another sophomore, TB Henry Josey, who carried Missouri's offense during 2011, as the Franklin-Josey propelled Tigers scored an average of 32.2 points/game.
But first, let's go back to fall camp, when starting left tackle Elvis Fisher collapsed during a drill, and was lost for the season with a ruptured patellar tendon. The next day, sophomore Justin Britt, who was preparing to be the back-up left guard, was tabbed as Fisher's replacement. Two days later, Britt suffered a bad ankle sprain, and he began the season at considerably less than 100% healthy. At the same time, junior starting center Travis Ruth went down in camp with an Achilles injury, leaving the Tigers short two starting offensive linemen. Starting left guard, senior Jayson Palmgren, slid over to play center, a completely new position for him, and junior Jack Meiners moved from back-up right guard to starting left guard. And so it began, and so it continued.
On the season, Ruth made six starts, and overall, played about half of the season. There were times that he played when he wasn't very effective. Palmgren moved back and forth between center and left guard, and performed very well. He had his issues with the snaps, but thanks to Franklin, the impact of those was minimized. Meiners made six starts at left guard, and one start at right guard, when senior starting right guard Austin Wuebbels was unable to go. Wuebbels played most of the season with a shoulder injury, although it was barely noticeable. Only senior starting right tackle Dan Hoch, and Britt played the entire season in one spot. Hoch enjoyed what was probably his best season, as did Palmgren. Meiners and Britt played well enough, although there were times when Britt struggled. In a late-season interview with ShowMeMizzou.com, Britt said that he "needs to get stronger".
Narrowed offensive line splits and guards in three-point stances were part of an off-season and camp emphasis on running the football that paid big dividends during 2011 for Missouri. The Tigers lead the Big 12, and are eleventh nationally, in rushing, at 235.67 yards/game (5.2 yards/carry). Josey leads the conference in rushing, with 116.8 yards/game, and 8.1 yards/carry. Josey suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Tigers' tenth game, against Texas, and finished what should be an all-conference season with 1168 yards and 9 TDs on the ground.
Franklin was also a big part of the Tigers' ground attack. The sophomore QB ranks ninth in the Big 12 in rushing, at 69.9 yards/game (4.2 yards/carry).
Before fall camp even got started, sophomore TB Marcus Murphy injured a shoulder, and was lost for the season. During fall camp, Josey was running third string, behind junior Kendial Lawrence, and senior De'Vion Moore. Lawrence and Moore each missed time with injuries early in the season, and Josey took the football and didn't look back. On the season, Lawrence played in nine games, and started three. He averaged 50.9 rushing yards/game (4.4 yards/carry). Moore also played in nine games, and had one start. He averaged 16.8 rushing yards/game (5.2 yards/carry).
After a 2010 season in which the Tigers' rushing attack had featured a running back by committee approach, it appeared in fall camp that Lawrence had separated himself from the others. But it soon became evident that it was Josey who stood apart.
Heading into the 2011 season, Missouri returned all four starting receivers, including an All-American TE, in senior Michael Egnew, junior slot receiver T.J. Moe, and a pair of seniors on the outside, in Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson. Going back to last spring, I cited the need for the Tigers to upgrade their outside receivers.
Moe was steady, and leads the team in receptions (54 receptions) and receiving yardage (649 receiving yards) for the second straight year. He made it into the end zone for 4 TDs. From early in the season, Franklin knew that he could rely on Moe to get open and to catch the football. He was often the young QB's go-to guy.
Egnew's performance fell short of his returning All-American status. With 47 receptions for 484 yards, and 3 TDs, the senior certainly made a significant contribution. But, the missed blocks, fumbles, and dropped passes were disappointing, especially considering the pre-season expectations for the talented tight end. And, those miscues factored significantly into three or four of Missouri's losses.
Kemp had his best season at Missouri, and he helped to provide the Tigers with a much-needed upgrade at one of the outside receiver positions. On the season, Kemp made 27 receptions, for 321 yards, and 4 TDs. He even made a few down field catches, which I hadn't seen much of from Kemp previously. I thought that many of the screen passes that were thrown to Egnew maybe should have been thrown to Kemp, who appears to me to be better at run-after-catch, and with ball security.
As the season progressed, sophomore L'Damian Washington moved in behind Kemp on the depth chart, and was getting increased playing time. Washington became one of the Tigers' big play guys, and finished the regular season with 17 receptions, for 317 yards, and 3 TDs. Washington's 18.6 yards/reception was tops on the team, and his big-play capability complemented Kemp's improved play to give the Tigers an upgrade at the Z WR position.
On the other side of the field, Jackson inexplicably held on to his starting job throughout the season. The senior missed two games, and was limited in others, due to injuries. On the season, Jackson made 15 receptions for 207 yards. He did not catch a TD pass all season. Jackson's injuries gave sophomore Marcus Lucas an opportunity to showcase his considerable ability, and by season's end, Lucas was splitting time with Jackson, and had established himself as one of Franklin's go-to guys, as well as one of Missouri's big play receivers. On the season, Lucas made 23 receptions for 414 yards (18 yards/reception), and a team-leading 5 TD receptions. Lucas is the upgrade that the Tigers needed at that position, but he just didn't play as much as he should have.
Following Missouri's win over Kansas, Lucas would say, of his TD reception against the Jayhawks, that with that moment, he had lived out a childhood dream.
"Marcus Lucas has been playing very well," said Coach Pinkel, speaking of his sophomore receiver. "Every week, he keeps getting better. You see a glimpse of a guy who's got a chance, if he does the right things, to be a real good player."
In addition to the emergence of sophomores Lucas and Josey, who is now facing a long road to recovery, the story of the Missouri offense in 2011 is the story of a first-year starting QB whose performance has been on par with, or has surpassed, those of his three predecessors. Each of Missouri's three previous QBs are currently playing on Sundays. Franklin's completion percentage (63.2%) this season is slightly behind the 63.5% completion percentage that Chase Daniel posted in his first year as a starter. Neither Brad Smith nor Blaine Gabbert posted that high of a completion percentage during their careers.
Franklin's 141.24 passer efficiency rating currently ranks as the fifth-best single season mark by a Missouri QB, behind Phil Johnson, and each of Daniel's three seasons.
Franklin's 2733 passing yards this season currently ranks as the sixth most passing yards in a single season in school history, behind three seasons by Daniel, and two seasons by Gabbert.
Franklin has scored more combined TDs in his first year as a starter than any of his three predecessors. His TD to INT (20-10) ratio is similar to Chase Daniel's sophomore year. In fact, when examined closely, the biggest difference between Franklin's sophomore stats and those of Daniel, is that Daniel threw more passes, while Franklin ran the ball more, and much more effectively. A bowl win would give Franklin's Tigers an 8-5 record, which would be identical to Missouri's record during Daniel's and Gabbert's sophomore seasons.
Franklin's 3572 yards of total offense currently ranks #15 in the NCAA, and #1 among freshmen or sophomores. Franklin needs 33 yards of total offense in Missouri's bowl game to surpass Brad Smith's senior season for fifth place on Missouri's single season list. He needs 225 yards of total offense to place Franklin's sophomore season ahead of Gabbert's most prolific season, and into fourth place on the school's single-season chart.
Franklin needs 334 yards of total offense, not an unattainable number for a player who is averaging 297.7 yards/game, to surpass Chase Daniel's total yardage output during his sophomore season. That would place Franklin's 2011 season third on Missouri's single-season list, behind Daniels' junior and senior seasons.
By season's end, Missouri had become Franklin's team, and despite a spate of injuries, a rash of early-season penalties, missed field goals, playing one of the country's toughest schedules, and other adversity-related issues, Franklin led this resilient Tiger team to a 7-5 record and a bowl game, with a chance to get to a more respectable 8-5.
This Sunday, that bowl game will be announced. Earlier this week, Coach Pinkel emphasized the importance of winning this year's bowl game, and next week, the Tigers will begin preparation on the practice field to do just that.