Spring superlatives: Missouri

Today: The fifth in our series looking at the strongest and weakest position for each team in the Big 12: The Missouri Tigers.

Strongest position: Defensive line

Key returnees: Brad Madison, Jacquies Smith, Terrell Resonno, Dominique Hamilton, Jimmy Burge, Michael Sam

Key losses: Aldon Smith

Analysis: It's hard to believe a spot that loses a first-round draft pick could be the team's strength the following season, but that's the case for Missouri. For all of Smith's raw talent, his sophomore season was an anticlimactic encore to a promising freshman year, mostly because of a broken leg suffered just before conference play began. While he was gone, Madison emerged as a force, eventually leading the team with 7.5 sacks and earning second-team All-Big 12 honors despite playing most of the season as a backup.

But his teammate across the line, Jacquies Smith, was second on the team with 5.5 sacks and tied Aldon Smith with 10 tackles for loss.

Hamilton was enjoying a big year before suffering a broken ankle against Oklahoma. A week later, when the Tigers gave up 307 yards rushing to Roy Helu Jr., it was pretty obvious how much they missed him.

He and Resonno should hold down the middle, but what makes this such a position of strength for the Tigers is their depth.

Blue-chip recruit turned juco prospect Sheldon Richardson has been trying to get to Columbia for years, but it looks like his 6-foot-4, 290-pound athletic frame will finally make it to campus this summer.

As a freshman, end Michael Sam showed big-time potential, making seven tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Fellow end Kony Ealy has drawn favorable reviews this spring and looks like he'll get a chance to contribue as a freshman as well.

Tackle Jimmy Burge will be in the rotation as a junior after making 16 tackles last season.

Weakest position: Big-play threats

Analysis: One of the reasons Missouri should still be solid next season, despite losing a likely top 10 pick at quarterback, is its strength nearly everywhere else.

There are small questions at center and in the secondary, but I'd expect Missouri to end up at least solid in both positions with talented players who got some experience last season taking over at both spots. I also believe whoever wins the competition between Tyler Gabbert and James Franklin will at least be decent.

But for Missouri's offense, it's easy to see the biggest weakness lies in a big-play threat, something the offense has had in some way for the better part of the past decade until last season. Missouri ranked fifth in the Big 12 with 63 plays of 20 yards or longer and had just six fewer than the second-place team, Baylor.

But plays longer than 30 yards? The Tigers had just 21, and ranked eighth in the Big 12. Only Iowa State and Kansas had fewer than Missouri's six plays longer than 40 yards, and consider also that two of those plays were 69 and 71-yard runs to open up an early lead against Texas Tech, but the Tigers' offense was stymied the rest of the game in the deflating road loss.

Those six plays also ranked 106th nationally. There are worse things to have as a weakness for sure, but Missouri's offense will suffer next season if someone can't soften up defenses. Marcus Lucas, a 6-foot-5 sophomore receiver, is one name that comes up constantly in that group, but the fact right now is, Missouri has no proven big-play threats.

Underneath routes are hugely important for the Tigers' top two pass-catchers, Michael Egnew and T.J. Moe, and late in the season, defenses focused on the duo, causing dips in their production.

The good news for Missouri? Egnew and Moe had all of five receptions combined in 2009. Last season, they had 182.

Can Missouri find another under-the-radar player to help provide a more rounded offense?

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