After a rough 2015, Missouri looks to bounce back in the win column this season. The Tigers begin spring football today, here are some things to keep an eye on:
2015 record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
Final AP rank: N/A
2016 Way-too-early rank: N/A
2016 FPI rank: 51
Spring game date: Saturday, April 16
Key losses: LB Kentrell Brothers, C Evan Boehm, LT Connor McGovern, CB Kenya Dennis, S Ian Simon, QB Maty Mauk.
Key newcomers: WR Chris Black, RB Natereace Strong, OL Tyler Howell, LB Trey Baldwin.
1. How similar -- or different -- will this spring be under a new coaching staff?
After 15 years under one coach, a new chapter in Missouri football begins under Barry Odom. The Tigers' defensive coordinator succeeds Gary Pinkel, the school's all-time leader in wins.
Odom's hire was met with enthusiasm by current players when he was introduced by athletic director Mack Rhoades in December. Will that energy carry over onto the field this spring and fall?
So far the 39-year-old Odom constructed an eclectic coaching staff. There's some Oklahoma flavor with names like Josh Heupel (offensive coordinator/quarterbacks), Joe Jon Finley (tight ends) and Jackie Shipp (defensive line); he tabbed former TCU co-defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross to lead the defense and he brought on veterans at offensive line (Glen Elarbee) and cornerbacks (Greg Brown). But there are also several holdovers from the previous staff, like receivers coach Andy Hill, running backs coach Cornell Ford and safeties coach Ryan Walters, so from a culture standpoint, there is likely to be some consistency.
Odom is thought to be a rising star in the industry; how he fares in his head coaching debut is certainly worth watching.
2. Will quarterback play improve?
It was an understandably difficult ride for the Tigers at the most important position -- quarterback -- given the circumstances that arose in 2015.
Veteran starter Maty Mauk was suspended after playing only four games last season and then never saw the field again in a Tiger uniform and won't after being dismissed from the team in the offseason. That forced true freshman Drew Lock into the starter's role and it was an uphill battle for the youngster, who completed only 49 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions in his eight starts.
It wasn't all on Lock -- offensive line and receivers played a role in the offense's struggles as a whole -- but regardless, he'll have to improve. An offseason of work plus the knowledge that he'll likely be “the guy” can only help Lock. Missouri must hope that he takes a significant leap forward because the options beyond Lock don't offer any experience. Marvin Zanders hasn't thrown a pass in his collegiate career and the other scholarship options at the position are newcomers: junior college transfer Jack Lowary (who will participate in spring drills) and true freshman Micah Wilson, a February signee, won't be on campus until the summer.
Heupel has quite a task ahead.
3. How will the Tigers replace Kentrell Brothers?
Brothers led the nation in tackles last season (152), had 12 tackles for loss, three blocked kicks and was a picture of consistency for the Missouri defense. A first-team All-SEC choice, it isn't easy to replace a stalwart like Brothers, who was a three-year starter and was named the team's MVP at season's end.
There isn't necessarily a clear-cut successor ready made to step in at the weakside linebacker spot he vacated but there are options there. Joey Burkett (11 games, nine tackles in 2015) ended the season listed as the backup to Brothers on the Tigers' depth chart, but it was Clarence Green, who more regularly stepped into that reserve role -- however, he was a senior and is now gone.
In addition to Burkett, sophomore-to-be Brandon Lee (11 games, five tackles) and safety Terez Hall (12 games, seven tackles) could also be potential options. One intriguing possibility is incoming recruit Trey Baldwin, a Houston product who enrolled in January. Being on campus for spring ball gives the three-star prospect a chance to compete early and he has the size (6-foot-2, 240 pounds) coaches look for in an SEC linebacker.
Fortunately for the Tigers, the other two linebacker spots bring back talented starters with plenty of experience: middle linebacker Michael Scherer and strongside linebacker Donavin Newsom. So whoever succeeds Brothers will have help from the veteran teammates next to him.