It seems like only yesterday the Missouri Tigers were gearing up for their Sept. 5 season opener against Illinois.
Some seven weeks later, however, despite a startling 4-0 beginning to the season, I'm not so sure we know too much more about this team now than when it broke preseason camp in early August.
With 75 percent of the 2009 roster occupied by freshmen and sophomores, it's easy to blame youth for the Tigers' current two-game losing streak that has suddenly brought expectations crashing back down to Earth.
And though overzealous fans may get some kind of morbid joy out of surgically and ruthlessly dissecting this team's flaws on message boards, it's important to exercise patience when a team has experienced as much turnover as the Tigers.
True, Missouri faces a monumental task this weekend against No. 3 Texas to avoid an 0-3 hole in the Big 12 North, but if this team continues to grow weekly like it should; the remaining schedule offers plenty of opportunities for the Tigers to finish with what should be considered a very solid season.
But enough about the future. Let's reflect back on the past, where Missouri experienced its fair share of ups and downs through the first six games of the 2009 season.
Without further ado, here's my midseason report card for the Missouri Tigers:
It took this green Missouri offense all of four quarters to make us forget the scoreboard-shattering days of Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, and Chase Coffman. But in the wake of its awesome debut against the Illini, the offense spent much of the next five games reminding Tiger faithful that a reloading project is not necessarily completed overnight.
Make no mistake, this is not the same offense as the one Missouri fielded the past two seasons. Blaine Gabbert is a completely different breed of quarterback than Daniel. With the possible exception of Danario Alexander, no one possesses the sheer game-breaking ability of Maclin. And because the staff has implemented subtle changes in scheme, MU doesn't utilize its tight ends nearly as much this season, rendering Coffman's presumed predecessor, Andrew Jones (seven rec., 39 yards), ineffective in the passing game.
For the most part, the Missouri offense has done a respectable job this season, but you'd never know by looking at the numbers. Missouri scores 29.3 points a game, which ranks 46th in the nation, but the Tigers are lagging behind other offenses in the Big 12. If it were not for the conference's fourth-best passing attack (283.2 yards/game), Missouri would rank eighth or worse in the Big 12 in every major offensive statistical category.
But more than anything else, numbers aside, the Tigers' offense has been plagued by inconsistency.
Albeit with a nagging ankle injury, Gabbert is smack dab in the middle of growing pains as a first-year starter, and a number of young receivers are still working to find their footing in an intricate offense. And once considered the offense's one glaring strength, the offensive line has been a huge disappointment, as well as the main culprit for a lackadaisical running game that has been the Achilles heel of this team all season long.
It goes without saying that expectations for the offense were tempered entering 2009, especially given the departure of so many high-profile players from the previous two seasons.
This group has plenty of talent, but a relatively soft non-conference schedule has since given way to a Big 12 slate that offers minimal margin for error. And the young MU offense is paying the price right now for its inexperience, as mental lapses, careless penalties, and turnovers have lead to the team's current two-game skid.
As was the case in the loss at Oklahoma State, the offense tends to show flashes of brilliance for quarters at a time, only to have the switch turned off without notice. The task now is to prevent that from happening consistently. If Missouri can do that, fans may begin to lament the loss of Daniel and his cohorts a little less.
Best player this season so far: Danario Alexander (44 rec., 627 yards)—What else can you say about the senior receiver? Alexander has already set a career-high in yardage three separate times, which goes to show what he's capable of when his troublesome knee is actually healthy.
Player to watch for the second half: De'Vion Moore—This is going out on a limb, because the sophomore tailback has been underutilized this season, partially due to injury. It remains to be seen if Moore, who is averaging just 5.5 carries a game, will begin to see more touches during the second half of the season, but Missouri's offense would be wise to take advantage of his straight-line speed and cutback ability.
Player the offense can least afford to lose: Blaine Gabbert—We know the guy is tough. Though head coach Gary Pinkel repeatedly indicates Gabbert's ankle is 100 percent, any idiot knows otherwise. With that being said, Gabbert seems content to play through the pain, so anything less than a concussion or death won't keep him off the field. And that's a good thing, because nobody really knows what backup Jimmy Costello brings to the table, including maybe himself. Despite being a first-year starter, Gabbert is the heart and soul of this team and an unsung leader. Plus, his early-season dominance keeps the offense's grade from slipping to a C+.
In the same breath, you might struggle to find the proper adjective to describe the defense's performance compared to that of last season, yet even the most optimistic of fans would still manage to conjure a list of ways the Tigers could improve in this area.
Facing the monumental task of cleaning up the rubble left behind by his predecessor, Matt Eberflus, new defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has done an admirable job of simplifying the perplexing coverage schemes that caused so much confusion and chaos in 2008. Using a vanilla game plan that emphasizes discipline and responsibility while preventing the big play, Steckel has taken advantage of Missouri's increased athleticism, particularly in the secondary, to construct a defense that is currently among the nation's best.
Through six games, the Tigers rank 33rd and 35th in the nation in total yards allowed (2,021) and points per game (20.3). To boot, the pass defense, which was one of college football's worst a season ago, is ranked third in the pass-happy Big 12, allowing 209.5 yards per game. After bringing up the rear in the conference in 2008, the pass defense this season ranks behind only Nebraska (174.5) and Oklahoma (189.8).
Of course, there have been moments of deficiency. Nevada had no trouble on the ground, rushing for more than 200 yards. Heck, FCS opponent Furman racked up nearly 400 yards of offense. And including the forgettable fourth quarter against Nebraska, Missouri's lax coverage on the outside has been exploited by Big 12 receivers.
A majority of the Tigers' problems on defense can be traced back to the ineptitude of a defensive line that was being heralded prior to the season. Missouri ranks 51st in the nation (eighth in the Big 12) in rush defense, surrendering 127.3 yards per game, which is a reflection of the line's inability to get a consistent push up front.
Senior nose tackle Jaron Baston has had his moments, but he is hardly dominant, and sophomore tackles Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton have been extremely quiet while learning on the fly and at times look completely overmatched. The result has been a mushy interior defense that puts way too much pressure on the defensive ends to create disruption and forces Steckel to dial up unwanted blitzes.
Speaking of the ends, the interchangeable trio of senior Brian Coulter, sophomore Jacquies Smith, and redshirt freshman Aldon Smith haven't been much better, failing to live up to the ridiculous hype created this preseason by fans and media alike, including this guy.
By Big 12 standards, the Smiths are undersized ends, each tipping the scale at just over 250 pounds, and each has had trouble in conference play against more physical offensive tackles. Aldon Smith registered each of his team-leading three sacks by the Nebraska game, but he has since fallen off. As for Jacquies Smith and Coulter, well, they have combined for one-and-a-half sacks all season.
Aside from the linebacking corps, which has featured not only the steady play of All-American Sean Weatherspoon (8.3 tackles/game) but the emergence of sophomore Will Ebner and junior Andrew Gachkar, the Missouri defense clearly has its holes.
More specifically, this unit spends too much time on the field. Not only are the Tigers dead last in the Big 12 in turnovers (eight) and interceptions (two), but they're tied for last in the conference with only 10 sacks and allow opponents to convert 40 percent of their third downs, which is second to last. And that all starts with the defensive line.
If Missouri is able to improve its defensive line play, those numbers will subsequently get better. Granted, the defense is exceeding expectations, especially after last season's debacle, and the unit has kept the team in a number of games (see games versus Oklahoma State, Nebraska, and Bowling Green). However, if it continues to struggle to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks and generate valuable turnovers, how long will it be before this overworked defense starts to collapse?
Best player this season so far: Sean Weatherspoon—You could make a case for cornerback Carl Gettis, but Weatherspoon is not only MU's best defensive player, but he is the unit's most valuable. A sure-fire pick within the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, Weatherspoon needs only 83 tackles to become the school's all-time leader in tackles, surpassing James Kinney's mark of 434 set from 2001-04.
Player to watch for the second half: Andrew Gachkar and/or Will Ebner—My initial thought was to pick Aldon Smith, but he appears to be a year away from becoming a truly good player. Gachkar and Ebner, on the other hand, have each made their mark at linebacker, combining for 64 tackles, including six for loss, three sacks, and one forced fumble. And though Ebner may be gimpy for a while following surgery on his right knee, there's no reason he and Gachkar won't improve as the season goes along.
Player the defense can least afford to lose: Sean Weatherspoon—see above.
Special Teams: A-
Let's overlook the fact the Tigers rank in the bottom three of the Big 12 in kickoff return and kickoff coverage because, as a whole, the special teams has been nothing short of a pleasant surprise this season. Replacing two of the greats of college football at their respective duties, Missouri has managed to find worthy replacements.
Cornerback Carl Gettis, although nothing spectacular, has handled the monumental task of replacing Jeremy Maclin quite well on punt returns. With the exception of the one muff against Bowling Green, Gettis is doing exactly what you want from a punt return man: catching the ball and making something happen when given the opportunity. Through 12 returns, the fewest among the conference's top five punt returners, Gettis is averaging eight-and-a-half yards, behind only Texas' Jordan Shipley (16.4) and Nebraska's Niles Paul (9.7).
The player responsible for replacing the other half of the Jeremy Maclin equation, kick returner Jasper Simmons, ranks fifth in the Big 12 with his 22.6-yard average. Simmons has shown a semblance of a Maclin-esque ability to find and accelerate through holes, but it's unfortunate that his contributions to the date will be marred by a faux holding penalty and an incorrect fumble ruling that both proved crucial in the loss to Oklahoma State.
Meanwhile, former walk-on Grant Ressel has been a revelation in his attempt to fill the shoes of the departed Jeff Wolfert, the most successful kicker in NCAA history. Not only is Ressel third in the conference in scoring average, at nine points a game, but he has made 12 of 13 field goals, as well as all 18 of his PATs, and leads the Big 12 with his 92.3 percentage.
Ex-Columbia College soccer star Tanner Mills has been solid on kickoffs, and punter Jake Harry IV, utilizing the increasingly popular rugby style, has been better than expected. Harry IV is fourth in the Big 12 with an average of 42.8 yards per punt and has a long of 69.
After eight seasons of internal calm, head coach Gary Pinkel encountered a shake-up within his staff at Missouri following the 2008 season. Long-time offensive coordinator Dave Christensen took off for the wide-open pastures of Laramie to become the head coach at Wyoming, and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus received a promotion to coach the linebackers of the Cleveland Browns.
And for the most part, their successors, Dave Steckel and David Yost, have done a commendable job of stepping in.
David Yost: C
Like Steckel, Yost is in charge of leading a unit that's laden with youth and inexperience. Once Christensen's second set of eyes and ears when it came play-calling, Yost—who looks more like a professional surfer than a football mind—is considered to be one of the country's better quarterbacks coaches, so he's definitely the man to tutor Blaine Gabbert and oversee the growth of the MU offense.
But, at times, it seems as if Yost has not bothered to shed the stubbornness that often got his mentor in trouble. In combination with poor execution on the field, there's been a number of instances this season in which Yost's call didn't seem to fit the situation and, therefore, it ended in utter failure.
Most recently, at Yost's behest, Missouri threw on third-and fourth-and-1 from deep within Oklahoma State territory last Saturday, opting to put pressure on Gabbert and his injured ankle instead of trusting a running game that seemed to have rediscovered itself earlier in the game.
On the flip side, you could argue that Yost has taken too much heat for the Tigers' offensive woes, particularly running the ball. Shouldn't most of that blame be reserved for the offensive linemen, if not co-offensive line coaches Bruce Walker and Josh Henson? As far as the formations that don't seem to offer up much variety, the Tigers reportedly run a multitude of different plays from the same alignment. And don't forget that Yost and the coaches have yet to entrust Gabbert with changing the play at the line of scrimmage, which cuts down on the offense's options.
For those of you clamoring for a change in scheme or philosophy, don't bother. Yost has been forthright in defending MU's proven spread offense, and that includes not putting Gabbert under center more regularly. But, to his credit, Yost has also admitted mistakes as a rookie coordinator, which I suppose is the first step to improvement.
Dave Steckel: B+
If Yost is the laid back, zany hipster whose main identifiable mark is his soul patch/mop hairdo combo, then Steckel is his polar opposite.
A former Marine, Steckel preached discipline while coaching MU's linebackers for the past eight seasons, and he has carried that mantra over into this new position. The word is defensive players love playing for Steckel—and it shows. Steckel brings an intensity to the sideline that can be easily transferred to the field, and this defense has taken on his personality.
Let's face it, Steckel didn't inherit an overabundance of top-notch talent, but his streamlined philosophy has allowed his players to perform without having to bear the burden of all the extra X's and O's that characterized Eberflus' schemes.
Missouri's defense won't be confused for that of Alabama or Florida. The Tigers still lack elite talent in the trenches, and the shortage of turnovers appears to be a concern that may last the rest of the season. With that being said, under Steckel's watch, the Tigers are happy with employing the old bend-but-don't-break mindset on defense, and to this point it's worked OK.
Through six games, Missouri has held each of its opponents to less than 400 yards of offense and has allowed only five plays of 25 yards or more. We couldn't say either of those last season.
Gary Pinkel: C-
In my mind, over the summer, I thought 2009 would be the most telling season thus far in head coach Gary Pinkel's tenure in Columbia. How would he handle mixed expectations? Following back-to-back seasons of at least 10 wins, would the MU program sink back into obscurity like some have predicted, or would Pinkel prove his efforts have elevated MU to the next level?
To be honest, I don't think any of us know yet. It's clear that Pinkel has talent, but that talent is young. But you could say the same thing for a handful of teams across the country that currently have more wins than Missouri. Yes, the 4--0 start was nice, but how much of that was a byproduct of soft scheduling? Judging by MU's last two games, I'd say more than we originally thought.
So, then, the question becomes this: Is Missouri's, let's say, mediocre first half of the season attributed to youth and inexperience, or to Pinkel's weaknesses as a coach?
From what I've read, Pinkel has little influence on play-calling, which is something he entrusts to his coordinators, so we'll leave that one alone. But what about the mental toughness and resiliency—both of which Pinkel preaches ad nauseum—that has eluded Missouri each of the last two weeks? And what should we make of the lifeless fourth quarter at home against Nebraska? After all, dominance during the game's final quarter has always been one of the centerpieces of Pinkel's philosophy for rejuvenating the program.
And then there's the recent string of mindless penalties and fact that Missouri is tied for last in the Big 12 in turnover margin (-0.33), two blemishes Pinkel has accepted blame for but ones that still rock him to the core as a stickler for detail.
Now, with the Tigers staring an 0-3 in-conference record in the face, will Pinkel enable this team to gallantly circle the wagons? Or will a mid-season slide prove that Missouri is nothing but a program that's capable of making a run every four to five years—and that Pinkel is a second-rate coach?
Photo credit: Getty Images