COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — With one season in the books for coach Barry Odom at Missouri, players and coaches have spent the last six weeks working diligently to avoid a repeat of last season.
The Tigers lost eight games for the first time since 2000 and finished with a 4-8 record in 2016, managing just two Southeastern Conference wins in their first season under Odom.
“We’re getting substantially better every day, and it’s fun to see,” Odom said. “We’ve still got a ways to go, but I like the way we’re coming out and attacking the practices. It’s fun to see some guys that haven’t played step up and guys that have played play at a higher level.”
Here are five things to know as Missouri wraps up spring drills with a Saturday scrimmage:
The Tigers return 10 offensive starters from last season, including the entire offensive line that allowed an SEC-best 14 sacks in 12 games in 2016. Quarterback Drew Lock will look to improve on the cohesiveness of the offense, having thrown for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns last season with essentially the same unit.
TIGHT END TANDEM
With the graduation of Sean Culkin, tight ends Jason Reese and Kendall Blanton will compete for the starting job and likely split time regardless of depth chart position. Both made significant contributions to Missouri’s aerial attack in 2016. Reese caught nine passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns, and Blanton had 16 catches for 161 yards and three touchdowns.
GAPS ON THE LINE
While the offensive line is experienced and healthy, the same can’t be said for the defensive line. All-SEC defensive end Charles Harris recorded 117 tackles in his final two seasons, including 30 1/2 for losses, 16 sacks, 20 quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. But he left early for the NFL and defensive end Spencer Williams has left the program and intends to transfer. Williams made five starts over the course of 2016, tallying 15 tackles to go with four quarterback hurries. Senior Marcell Frazier suffered a broken arm in spring practice.
“You never want an injury, but you’d rather have it now than in the middle of August,” Odom said. “We expect him to be back full and ready to roll in June.”
BIG SHOES TO FILL
Missouri’s linebacker corps lost two of its biggest pieces to graduation. Michael Scherer ended his four-year Missouri career with 256 tackles, but he missed his final five games after suffering a season-ending knee injury in a 51-45 loss to Middle Tennessee State . Donavin Newsom led the Tigers in tackles in 2016, totaling 73 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in 11 starts.
Among those posed to replace Scherer and Newsom are Cale Garrett and Brandon Lee.
The Tigers’ special teams unit has been a pleasant surprise throughout the growing pains of the last two seasons, headlined by punter Corey Fatony and return specialist Johnathon Johnson.
Fatony was named to the Ray Guy Award watch list as a freshman after breaking the school’s single-season punt record of 81, and surpassed 5,000 yards punting in his sophomore campaign, averaging over 44 yards per kick. He has also shown the ability to execute trick plays. Fatony had a 26-yard run off a fake punt his freshman year, and completed an 11-yard pass for a first down last season.
Johnson, who emerged as one of Lock’s primary targets in 2016, is just as dangerous as a returner. He caught 24 passes for 435 yards and two touchdowns to go with 14 punt returns for 196 yards and a touchdown, as well as 10 kick returns for 171 yards.
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