COLUMBIA — A year ago, everything about Missouri football was uncertain.
How much longer will coach Gary Pinkel last?
Who is going to play quarterback?
Can the Tigers compete in the Southeastern Conference?
We now know how that all played out. Senior quarterback James Franklin, with the help of freshman Maty Mauk in relief, led the Tigers to the SEC championship game. And Pinkel, several days before Tuesday's start of 2014 spring practice, received a raise and contract extension that will pay him more than $3 million per year and could keep him at Missouri through the 2020 season.
Not only will Pinkel make more money this offseason, he’ll do it without the stress and pressure of last offseason. Mauk gives the team a somewhat established starter at quarterback, and Missouri proved it could compete in the SEC.
Now there are a few other questions for Missouri to answer. Last month in Indianapolis, seven Missouri players participated in the NFL Scouting Combine. Seven other graduating seniors leave the Tigers with 14 holes in their starting lineup.
The “grind,” as Pinkel likes to call it, now begins for Missouri.
Who will Mauk throw to?
Mauk’s development started last spring. He was starting to learn the offense but still making poor decisions with the football. By the time he got into game action in the fall, he started to flash potential. There was the fourth-quarter heave to Dorial Green-Beckham to help Missouri hold on for a win against Georgia and the five-touchdown game against Kentucky.
By the time the Cotton Bowl came around, Missouri was practically pushing Franklin out the door. Mauk was scrambling for big chunks of yardage and flashing the arm strength to be the next Missouri quarterback.
After the game, Pinkel said the starting quarterback job would be a competition in 2014, but it’s clearly Mauk’s job to lose.
With two of his top receivers, Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington, heading to the NFL, there remains a question of who will fill the void.
Green-Beckham will be around for at least one more season after taking a big step forward in 2013. Aside from him, Missouri has a list of players learning on the fly. Senior transfer Darius White will be in for a bigger role as will senior Jimmie Hunt.
The real change in the passing game may come in the involvement of the tight end position. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson admitted Missouri phased the tight end out of the passing game in 2013 because of the depth at wide receiver. Henson said he’s willing to adapt to his personnel.
His personnel includes two tight ends, Jason Reese and Sean Culkin, who are talented pass catchers. A few players have to step into bigger roles to make the offense work, but there are plenty of worthy candidates, most of whom have worked with Mauk in practice as part of the second-team offense.
Finding pieces on defense
Anytime a defense has to replace 21 sacks, there should be some cause for concern. But Missouri might not be all that worried about losing All-SEC defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. That’s because Markus Golden and Shane Ray combined for 11 sacks as part of the defensive end rotation in 2013 and will return for bigger roles in 2014.
“I wouldn’t say they’re passing the torch, because me and Shane, we’ve got starter’s stats,” Golden said after the Cotton Bowl. “Go check everybody’s stats. If you ask them guys, they’ll tell you. We’re starters, but we’re just their backups. Ain’t no passing the torch.”
The defensive line has become a model of consistency for Missouri under coach Craig Kuligowski. The program churns out NFL-level players and rarely has trouble winning battles at the line of scrimmage.
But behind the defensive line, Missouri has more questions to answer. Two starting linebackers graduated, including defensive captain Andrew Wilson. Missouri is also losing E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder in the secondary.
While John Gibson, Aarion Penton and David Johnson all got playing time in 2013, Missouri's secondary will have a much different look next season.
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel will still be patrolling the sideline for Missouri, though. Unlike a year ago, the Tigers have some level of certainty about the future of the coaching staff.
Of course, with greater success and stability come heightened expectations. On April 19, Missouri fans will get their first look at the 2014 team at the Black and Gold Game, and there will be a lot more to live up to than there was a year ago.
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.