Missouri Football: 5 Items to Focus on in 2011
Amidst the mess of the most recent conference shuffling, it's easy to forget that the 2011 football season is already underway. The University of Missouri has had their name linked to various conferences in the past week (Big 10, SEC, and Big East) and the rumors remain rampant. However, Gary Pinkel's squad cannot get caught up in the madness and risk letting their season get away from them in September.
The top-25 Tigers are 1-0 after a September 3rd struggle at Faurot Field against the Miami (OH) Redhawks. With trips to Arizona State and current No. 1 Oklahoma remaining in the month, Mizzou must avoid the off-field distractions and get down to business on the field.
The following are the five things that require the most attention on the field to ensure the Tiger's success in 2011.
1) Develop QB James Franklin on the Fly
After taking the reigns at QB following Blaine Gabbert's departure to the NFL, James Franklin's debut on Saturday has the Tiger faithful a bit worried.
After nearly being passed on the depth chart by ex-Tiger Tyler Gabbert, Franklin regained his grip on the top spot after a strong final week of spring practice. In his first game as the starter, Franklin showed the ability to gain yards on the ground, but struggled with his throwing accuracy and decision-making.
Unfortunately, in the NCAA, there is no preseason for a QB to hone his skills. Typically, a bigger school has up to four non-conference games against FCS schools, which is essentially a glorified scrimmage for the big boys. However, with the Big 12 losing Nebraska and Colorado last summer, the remaining members will have to play nine conference games.
Mix in the fact that one of Mizzou's non-conference games is a road trip to Arizona State on a Friday night, and it doesn't leave Gary Pinkel much time to get his sophomore QB up to speed.
To combat this, Pinkel must learn to adapt his play-calling to match Franklin's skill set. In the first game against Miami (OH), many of Franklin's passes were outside the hash marks, which increases the degree of difficulty. To increase the Tigers' chances of success, Franklin should see some more "moving" pockets with the option to run or make a safe, short throw.
2) Weather the Injuries
With the 2011 season barely a week old, Mizzou has had more than their fair share of injuries. For the ASU game on Friday night, the Tigers have already ruled out DE Jacquies Smith, LB Will Ebner, RB Kendial Lawrence, WR Jerrell Jackson and C Travis Ruth. All were slated to be starters heading into the season.
On top of this, they also lost starting LT Elvis Fisher for the year with an ACL injury in August. Out of those ruled out for ASU, Smith, Jackson and Ruth should be back before the Oklahoma game on September 24th. However, Ebner and Lawrence would be long-shots at this point.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they have experience and depth at the RB and WR positions with many players returning from 2010. As for the D-line, Jacquies Smith is a big loss but former 5-star newcomer, DT Sheldon Richardson, might help to add depth to the line.
While not a DE himself, Richardson's presence might allow defensive coordinator Dave Steckel to move a current starter to the outside. Plus, starting CB Kip Edwards is on the mend and might even be available for the game this week, which would be a boost to a secondary that only returned two starters this season.
If Mizzou can pull out a win on the road this week, they have Western Illinois coming to town on 9/17 and those injured shouldn't be needed for that contest. A 3-0 start, coupled with the boost of getting some injured players back, should give the Tigers some momentum for their showdown with OU on 9/24.
3) Don't Be Afraid to Rely on the Defense
Even with the departure of former Mizzou DE Aldon Smith and the aforementioned injuries, the Tigers still boast a very good defense. This past Saturday, they held Miami (OH) to one touchdown and that was after an interception thrown by QB James Franklin deep in their own territory. After allowing over 50 yards on the first series, the defense stepped up for the next three and a half quarters.
As mentioned earlier, the offense is on a bit of a learning curve under the leadership of Franklin. Therefore, the coaches should not be afraid to rely on the defense a little more than normal. For example, if the Tigers have a three-point lead in Tempe on Friday night and face a fourth and short just inside ASU territory, Pinkel needs to settle for the punt.
Until the offense shows some signs of life, playing the field-position game makes all the sense in the world, even if that means playing Big 10 style football.
4) Play Mistake-Free Football
Due to recent injuries and a slow offensive start, Mizzou's margin for error is razor thin. On Saturday, the Tigers racked up nine penalties for 81 yards against Miami (OH).
The Tigers have a slew of second-stringers in the starting line up right now and the coaches need to ensure that their fundamentals, technique, and discipline are on-point. A lack of these attributes can cause some of the most detrimental penalties including false starts, offensive holding and defensive pass interference.
At this point, Mizzou simply cannot afford to erase positive gains or give away free yardage. It's up to the coaches and players to make sure this gets cleaned up immediately.
5) Solid Coaching and Play-Calling
A common thread throughout these slides has involved coaching. Whether it be developing QB James Franklin, altering play-calling or preparing second-stringers to start, head coach Gary Pinkel and his staff have to be on their game this year.
In recent years, the high-powered offense has been able to cover for any holes in the defense. In 2011, the roles are becoming reversed and Pinkel needs to make sure his approach is altered accordingly.
Coach Pinkel has done an outstanding job of getting the most out of his players since his arrival in 2001. Let's not forget that Mizzou typically gets the "leftover" three and four star recruits that Texas and OU pass on and Pinkel tends to make them look like five-star recruits by graduation. There is little doubt that he will work the same magic on his current crop of Tigers, but with a tough schedule, that learning curve must be accelerated to ensure success this season.
Tell me Mizzou fans, what are your keys for the 2011 season? Please fire away in the comments section.