COLUMBIA, Mo. – For a team that went 6-1 over the second half of its 2017 season and retained a healthy chunk of its best talent, the Missouri football program entered the spring with a lot of soul-searching to do.
The burning question was how new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley would impact a unit that averaged 503.2 yards and 37.5 points last season but fizzled in the Texas Bowl.
There was the issue of how coach Barry Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters could get the most out of a defense that is blessed with plenty of talent up front but has underwhelmed for the last two seasons.
And there were curiosities about how Andy Hill could help Missouri’s special teams after being named the squad’s coordinator in January.
Fourteen spring practices, the last of which was Thursday, certainly didn’t provide definitive answers. They did provide hints. The public will get its taste of the transitioning Tigers at the Black and Gold Game at noon Saturday on Faurot Field.
A showcase it will not be.
“I hope it looks like watching paint dry,” Odom said. “I hope they look like a well-coached team that’s fundamentally sound. No errors. No penalties. No turnovers. Injury-free, and we get out of there.”
There were nuggets of discovery in all three phases this spring.
Dooley, perhaps tired of the perception that he would be overhauling Missouri’s offense, tried to set the record straight this week.
“People make it sound like we have all these plays. We’re keeping things very clean for the players,” Dooley said after Tuesday’s practice. “We’re running a lot of what we did last year. We’ve added a few wrinkles. That’s it.”
Early in the spring, the Tigers tinkered to find a formula that meshed the best parts of the old system with new elements that could get more out of quarterback Drew Lock and Missouri’s running game. That time has passed.
"We’re not throwing any more buckets up against the wall," Dooley said. "We’ve thrown enough."
Some principal tenets will remain: Neither Dooley nor Lock was interested in scrapping the Tigers’ spread attack or uptempo rhythm. There will be, however, more creative approaches in the run game, which will use new blocking schemes on the line and in the backfield.
The Tigers don’t have a traditional fullback, but in heavy packages, Dooley mentioned Missouri could draw from its big pool of tight ends for extra heft.
Whatever the package, Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III will be tone-setters. Redshirt freshman back Isaiah Miller might have a chance to contribute after recovering from ankle surgery in the first week of April.
“We need to utilize those guys. We need to have a good running game,” Dooley said. “If you don’t have a good running game, you can’t win in this league.”
Then, of course, there’s Lock, the nation’s leader in touchdown passes a season ago. There will be no opportunity for him to fly under the radar in 2018, especially not with a treacherous Southeastern Conference schedule that includes consecutive games against Georgia, at South Carolina and at Alabama.
“Somebody used to tell me you should walk around all day with a rock in your shoe. The minute you start feeling good about yourself, you’re going to get knocked on your tail. Life is going to do it to you,” Dooley said. … “That’s what Drew needs to do, keep a rock in his shoe at all times so he doesn’t get too comfortable.”
The situation behind Lock remains muddled. Micah Wilson was the second-string quarterback last year, but there’s competition for the spot now from redshirt freshman Taylor Powell and sophomore transfer Lindsey Scott Jr. None has separated himself from the pack yet, Dooley said.
Spring practices can be fool’s gold, but Missouri’s defense has looked formidable in the early stages of 2018 – especially up front.
“It’s been beneficial to have so many guys coming back to build off what they did well toward the end of the year,” Walters said Tuesday. “... What we’ve got to preach and harp on is being mentally tough enough to do it day-in and day-out, regardless of the circumstances.”
There is no question that the Tigers’ defensive strength is in the trenches. Terry Beckner Jr.’s return is a game-changer, and Texas transfer Jordan Elliott will attract plenty of attention as Beckner’s partner at defensive tackle. Rashad Brandon, Kobie Whiteside, Walter Palmore and Akial Byers will provide interior depth.
Missouri has played around to find a fit for the rest of the defensive line, especially after Tre Williams’ spring ended with surgery to fix a torn labrum. With Williams out, sophomore Chris Turner is the team’s standout edge rusher.
A trickier problem is finding a solution at safety, a position that – with the exception of Anthony Sherrils last year – has troubled Missouri for two seasons.
More secondary help is on the way this fall with Oregon graduate transfer Khalil Oliver, but for the time being, the Tigers have looked to sophomore Tyree Gillespie and converted linebacker Joshuah Bledsoe for answers on the back end.
“It’s about how fast they can grasp the game concept-wise so they’re playing fast, reacting instead of processing,” Walters said. “They’ve got to do a great job this offseason, spending extra time in the film room to be what we need them to be.”
There’s little chance of DeMarkus Acy and Adam Sparks being unseated at cornerback, though incoming freshman Chris Mills could disrupt the order when he joins the team in the fall.
For years, coaching special teams was essentially a side project for assistants whose primary responsibility was on coaching offensive or defensive position groups. This is the first year the unit has its own day-to-day coordinator in Hill.
“Our special teams have made so many improvements from the start of spring to where we are today,” Odom said. “(Hill) is spending time evaluating and getting the personnel set and trying to find ways to get those guys in position to make plays and give us a schematic advantage. I’m glad he’s in that spot, because he’s helped our team be a lot better.”
Missouri’s special-teams unit transformed from a liability early in 2017 to a consistently solid unit by the end of the season. There’s still room for growth.
The Tigers have two highly talented specialists in punter Corey Fatony (13th in Division I net punting last year) and kicker Tucker McCann (fifth in Division I field-goal percentage last year), whose only issues have been with consistency. Perhaps that can be improved with Hill’s constant presence throughout 2018.
Missouri also has a blossoming punt returner in Richaud Floyd, who had two return touchdowns after earning the spot midway through last season.
All things considered, after a woeful start last year, special teams could be a team strength for Missouri going into the 2018 season.
But spring doesn’t afford the chance to truly know.
“We’re a lot better football team now than we were at any point last year, and that’s a good thing,” Odom said. “I don’t want to confuse that yet for where we need to be, because we’ve got a really long ways to go.”