Pity Alex Pettersen.
For the third straight season, Missouri's lone scholarship kicker has lost his job to a walk-on, this time losing out to junior Joe Tantarelli. None of the Tigers' four kickers had a strong camp, making the move even more surprising.
Coach Gary Pinkel explained that Tantarelli earned the nod because of a handful of factors, including kick height and length. He did not comment specifically why Pettersen lost the job, but it seems likely that the coaching staff might have lost faith in the redshirt sophomore.
Instead of accepting scholarship offers from Texas A&M and Temple, Tantarelli chose to walk on with the Tigers, a decision that has paid off in spades. It seems likely that the kicking job will remain open, at least through the first week. If Tantarelli struggles, we could see a reverse of 2002, when Pettersen struggled in the season opener against Illinois and lost his job to Mike Matheny.
The other major surprise is the vaulting of freshman TE Martin Rucker to the starting position. Trailing seniors Victor Sesay and Clint Matthews before camp opened, Rucker appeared to have to have an enormous fall to earn playing time consideration this season. And that's exactly what he had.
Rucker had perhaps the most consistent camp of any Missouri receiver, finding himself the main target of several of the Tiger quarterbacks. Like Sesay, Rucker is a big (6-foot-5, 240-pound) target and his soft hands make him an intriguing safety valve. As Missouri continues to tweak the passing game, both Rucker and Sesay could prove invaluable weapons, especially if the offense can find a way to complete passes downfield.
The Tigers practiced several plays out of offensive sets with two tight ends this fall, a set Pinkel said Monday would continue into the season. Bringing two large, athletic tight ends into the game at once makes the offense more multifaceted than it has been in the past few seasons.
Besides the unexpected vault of Rucker, little changed. The offensive line remains true to form, with redshirt freshmen Adam Spieker and Tyler Luellen still slated to start at center and weak-side tackle, respectively. Despite a strong performance in place of injured tackle Scott Paffrath, sophomore Joel Clinger remains second in depth at strong-side tackle. One surprise is freshman walk-on Colin Brown, who is slated to be the back-up center. Whether that translates into playing time is questionable: guards Joe Gianino or Mike Cook both have experience at center and would seem more likely candidates to step in if Spieker struggles or gets injured.
A strong final few weeks of camp was not enough to vault freshman Chase Patton ahead of sophomore Brandon Coleman as junior QB Brad Smith's replacement. Coleman's extended experience with the Missouri offense earned him the starting nod, but Patton made quite a case for the future this fall.
Despite a strong challenge from freshman Marcus Woods, junior Damien Nash maintains the top tailback spot. Pinkel has repeatedly hinted at using two tailback sets this fall, doing so again Monday. He would not say whether the Tigers would actually use such a set, however.
The starting three receivers remain the same, with sophomore Brad Ekwerekwu and junior Sean Coffey holding the split ends and senior Thomson Omboga slated to start as the slot receiver. Particularly notable were the players backing up those three.
After repeatedly receiving praise from Pinkel this fall, freshman William Franklin is one of two true freshman to be listed on the two-deep depth chart. (Brown is the other.) He is currently slated to back up Ekwerekwu, and Pinkel said he would definitely see action this season.
Freshman Jason Ray also had a strong camp, but faded slightly as the fall wore on. He still managed to appear on the two-deep, trailing Coffey. Sophomore Andrew Hoskins, who seemed to come out of nowhere to scrimmage with the second-team offense late in camp, maintained his spot with that unit, trailing Omboga. Whether Hoskins will see much time as a receiver remains to be seen, but his appearance there raises questions about the performances of juniors Chris Crosby and Arnold Britt. Neither appears on the two-deep, missing along with freshman Jerrill Humphrey, who flashed good hands throughout camp.
The defense broke down almost exactly as the coaching staff plotted it out in the preseason depth. All 11 projected starters kept their job, with only three minor changes behind them.
The four starters on the defensive line, perhaps the strongest position on the team, remained the same, as expected. Senior Atiyyah Ellison and junior C.J. Mosley anchor the middle of the defense, with senior Phil Pitts and junior Earl Stephens, accordingly, backing them up. Stephens' strong camp vaulted him ahead of sophomore Fabian Bean, who had been listed as Mosley's backup, despite switching from end to tackle this spring.
Senior Zach Ville and sophomore Xzavie Jackson maintain the starting end spots. As expected, sophomore Brian Smith continues to trail Jackson, perhaps suggesting that the two will split reps, with Smith entering in downs that would require a pass rush. Freshman Lorenzo Williams showed an impressive athleticism throughout camp and shot by junior Elgin Childress as Ville's relief. The depth on the defensive line is impressive and could be matched up against almost every team in the Big 12.
All six linebacker spots in the two-deep remained the same. Senior James Kinney maintained his spot on the weak side, with an experienced backup in junior Derrick Ming. Sophomore Dedrick Harrington kept the middle linebacker spot, despite a strong challenge from senior Henry Sweat. On Monday, Pinkel said Sweat would see a lot of playing time this season, perhaps easing Harrington's transition from rover to linebacker.
Sophomore David Richard maintains the strong-side backer duties, with sophomore Marcus Bacon providing relief. Bacon also had a strong camp and should prove ready to step in if Richard struggles to adjust to his new position.
All four top cornerbacks remain the same, but the backups have switched side. Junior A.J. Kincade and senior Shirdonya Mitchell remain the starters, but junior Marcus King, who had a very strong camp, is now listed as Kincade's backup, with junior Calvin Washington spelling Mitchell. This seems to suggest that King is the team's top choice at the nickleback spot, but that is yet to be determined.
Despite a strong challenge from sophomore David Overstreet, junior Jason Simpson maintained his starting spot at free safety. Senior Nino Williams, the team leader in the secondary, will be backed up by sophomore Brandon Massey.
Besides Tantarelli, everything broke down as expected here. Senior P Brock Harvey, who had fallen behind sophomore walk-on Matt Hoenes on the preseason depth chart, regained the starting nod after a strong fall. He appears to be completely recovered from foot surgery and the coaching staff now hopes he can return to the form that made him one of the best punters in the country in 2002.
Despite a handful of potential replacements, senior Zach Strom will maintain his duties as the deep snapper. Smith will serve as the holder for kick attempts, a decision that some find odd but Pinkel does not. Smith replaces departed QB Sonny Riccio and opens up many trick play opportunities. Perhaps Smith's presence will limit the rush of opposing kick blockers, giving Tantarelli more time to get the ball in the air.
Mitchell claimed the top spot in both kick and punt returns, holding off Omboga for the punt duties. Freshman CB Alex Woodley will join Mitchell as the team's other starting kick return man.