COLUMBIA — One year ago, a wave of optimism swept across the Missouri football program.
The team unveiled brand-new uniforms during its first Black and Gold game as a member of the Southeastern Conference. Faurot Field sported a fresh green coat of artificial turf. Starting Quarterback James Franklin was a dark-horse candidate for the Heisman Trophy and head coach Gary Pinkel was confident in his system.
WHEN: 1 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
PRICE: $3 at the gate, or three canned food items for donation to the Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri.
Other football events Saturday:
Faurot expansion groundbreaking (10:30 a.m.)
Big Brothers/Big Sisters football clinic, Memorial Stadium (10:30 a.m.)
Memorial Stadium ticket office opens (11 a.m.)
Former football player reunion, Devine Pavilion (11:30 a.m.)
Stadium Gate 3 West open to general public (11:30 a.m.)
One 5-7 season later, that optimism has evaporated.
Like last spring, there are many changes for the Tigers, but there are more questions than answers. Key positions are in flux.
Franklin underwhelmed as a quarterback and a leader. Offensive coordinator David Yost resigned after spending 17 seasons under Pinkel at Missouri and Toledo, handing the reins to new coordinator Josh Henson, who is tasked with turning around an offense that was Missouri's worst since 2004. To top it off, several pundits ranked the incoming recruiting class last in the SEC.
The team’s first big step toward improvement will be on display at 1 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium during the team’s annual Black and Gold game.
Here are the 10 biggest questions surrounding Missouri's football program heading into the final scrimmage of the spring.
10. Where is the Rock 'M'?
Upon entering Faurot Field on Saturday, fans will notice something different about Memorial Stadium:the entire grass hill has been torn up, including the iconic Rock 'M' that students created in 1927.
The construction will allow for an expansion of the concourse above the hill and create a better view for Tigers fans. The 'M' will be moved closer to the goalpost when the renovation is complete this fall.
9. Will the offensive line hold up?
Countless inaccurate snaps, 29 sacks allowed and injuries to the team’s starting quarterback made for a forgettable 2012 season for Missouri's offensive line. The unit battled through injuries and inexperience in its first season in the SEC.
The offensive line has been reshuffled for 2013, with the biggest change coming at center. Sophomore Evan Boehm has made the transition from guard to center, where he started all 12 games last season as a true freshman. Boehm’s presence at center has resulted in a noticeable improvement in the snaps from the shotgun.
The rest of the offensive line is a work in progress. Justin Britt, Connor McGovern, Max Copeland and Mitch Morse have joined Boehm on either side of the Tigers’ first-team offensive line. The coaching staff hopes the lineman will have better luck avoiding injuries.
Missouri offensive lineman practice blocking Aug. 8 at Faurot Field. (Photo by Tatiana Fernandez)
8. Does Missouri have a capable replacement for Zaviar Gooden?
Pinkel has spoken at length about the leadership of senior linebacker Andrew Wilson. He’ll play alongside Donovan Bonner at linebacker, but the team will have to replace Zaviar Gooden, who is heading to the NFL.
Junior Darvin Ruise and sophomore Kentrell Brothers have both spent time with the first-team defense this spring, and Saturday’s game could go a long way towards settling that position battle.
7. Is Missouri's next great tight end on the roster?
Missouri has become a tight end factory in recent years. Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman and Michael Egnew have all parlayed successful college careers in Columbia into jobs in the NFL. Under the now-departed Yost, the tight end typically functioned as another wide receiver, lining up in the slot rather than beside the offensive line..
But after struggling with pass protection a year ago, Missouri has made a change in how it will use the tight end. Throughout the spring practices, the Tigers have shown looks with the tight end attached to the line as an additional blocker.
The Tigers also have a pair of talented pass catchers at the position. Returning starter Eric Waters will be joined by redshirt freshman Sean Culkin. Both have been nicked up a bit this spring — Culkin with a hip injury and Waters with a hurt ankle — but if healthy, both pose a threat in the passing game.
Eric Waters, left, warms up before a game against Central Florida on Sept. 29 at Bright House Networks Stadium in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Stuart Palley)
6. Who will hold down the side of the field opposite E.J. Gaines?
As a sophomore, cornerback E.J. Gaines earned all-conference honors in the Big 12. As a junior, Gaines learned how tough it is to repeat that feat in the SEC, but that’s his goal for his senior season.
Missouri doesn’t have to worry about Gaines’ side of the field. However, the cornerback spot opposite Gaines is wide open. With Kip Edwards graduating and Randy Ponder spending much of the spring banged up, sophomore David Johnson and redshirt freshman John Gibson have made plays with the first-team defense. Gibson appears to be the favorite to win the starting spot heading into the spring’s final scrimmage.
5. Is Henry Josey back to 100 percent?
Henry Josey’s knee bent awkwardly after a hit from a Texas defender in 2011, forcing him to sit out the entire 2012 season with three torn ligaments. The former All-Big 12 running back finally looks back to full speed for his junior season.
Pinkel said Josey recently ran close to a 4.3 40-yard dash, and expects him to get plenty of reps in the upcoming season.
“It’s a storybook story,” Pinkel said, “People have no idea what this guy’s had to do.” This Saturday, Josey will be able to show Missouri fans that his hard work has paid off.
Henry Josey runs drills Aug. 20 at the field behind the Missouri Athletic Training Complex. (Photo by Parker Miles Blohm)
4. How much has DGB improved?
Former five-star recruit Dorial Green-Beckham will be the key to success for whoever wins the starting quarterback job. After breaking national receiving records in high school, Green-Beckham had his ups and downs on and off the field last season, showing a tendency to produce big plays and then disappear from the game plan.
Green-Beckham also received a marijuana possession charge in October that was later reduced to trespassing.
However, the sophomore looks to be the primary receiving target in Henson's offense. Green-Beckham hauled in several catches in two spring scrimmages, including touchdowns of 25 and 50 yards. He can be a serious threat in both the short and deep passing games this year.
Dorial Green-Beckham is upended during the second quarter of the football game against Kentucky on Oct. 27 at Memorial Staidum. (Photo by Kile Brewer)
3. Can the Tigers replace Sheldon Richardson?
With Sheldon Richardson prepared to make the jump to the NFL, Missouri has a hole to fill on an otherwise experienced defensive line. The Tigers bring back defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, both of whom have shined in spring scrimmages, but the interior of the defensive line is not set.
Matt Hoch returns to start at defensive tackle, but next to him, Marvin Foster and Lucas Vincent have been battling it out for first-team reps. Those three will likely make up the Tigers’ rotation at defensive tackle, but Richardson won’t be easy to replace.
2. Will the new offensive system work?
Former offensive coordinator David Yost, who resigned in December, was the biggest victim of the team's worst offensive output since 2004.
Former co-offensive line coach Josh Henson was promoted to take the reins of Pinkel’s offense. Henson, who coached at Oklahoma State and LSU before signing on with the Tigers in 2009, favors a more compact formation, with tight ends lining up next to the offensive tackles as opposed to spreading out with the receivers.
Yost’s familiar spread motion has been absent from both scrimmages, with Henson placing the running back either next to the quarterback in shotgun or behind the quarterback in the pistol formation. These changes will allow plays to develop more quickly in the speedy SEC and give the quarterback more breathing room with play-action.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback in 2013?
Given the optimism and support surrounding James Franklin before the 2012 season, it's tough to believe he's back to battling for the starting gig.
Franklin, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk and redshirt sophomore Corbin Berkstresser are all vying to be the leader of the offense. Franklin and Mauk played a level above Berkstresser in both scrimmages this spring and figure to be the primary candidates for the starting job. Both have had trouble taking care of the football but have also shown flashes of brilliance.
Franklin’s strength has been his accuracy in the short passing game, while Mauk displays a flair for the dramatic with nifty moves in the pocket that lead to long first-down scrambles.
Mauk is two years removed from setting the national high school records for career passing yards (18,932) and touchdown passes (219) at Ohio's Kenton High School.
He has yet to impress with his decision-making ability, but the physical tools are there for him to beat out Franklin.
Both quarterbacks' abilities will be on full display Saturday afternoon.