Missouri opens spring practice with key losses to address
COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri opened spring football practice Tuesday without several familiar faces.
After winning 12 games and the Cotton Bowl last season, the Tigers are without SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam and quarterback James Franklin. Running back Henry Josey and defensive end Kony Ealy also are gone.
The loss of the key players appears to be even more motivation for Missouri when it comes to replicating last season's success.
"Nobody respects us still," senior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. "They still think of us as the little brother in the SEC. It doesn't matter if we won 12 games last year. It's a whole new season."
Much of the preseason attention centers on sophomore Maty Mauk, who played well last season in place of an injured Franklin and figures to have the upper hand for the starting quarterback job.
A 6-foot, 200-pound native of Kenton, Ohio, Mauk is listed atop the depth chart over junior Corbin Berkstresser and passed for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. Should he start, he'll lead an offense that scored 39.1 points and gained 490.7 yards per game, both of which ranked third in the Southeastern Conference.
"It's all about competition," coach Gary Pinkel said. "He played a third of the season and did very, very well.
"He's the starter right now."
Mauk won't have the benefit of having Franklin on the sidelines, and he won't be able to throw it to L'Damian Washington. Washington, a leader on the field and in the locker room, led the Tigers with 893 yards receiving yards and scored 10 touchdowns.
Senior receiver Bud Sasser said he would like to see Mauk become more consistent throughout games, but that it's a team issue more than an individual one.
"To me, Maty's always been calm and poised in the pocket," senior running back Marcus Murphy said. "Just with the experience and coming out today, he's been looking good."
Mauk will have junior Dorial Green-Beckham, who returns after setting a school record with four touchdown receptions from Mauk against Kentucky. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound native of Springfield, Mo., had a team-high 59 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Without Josey, who ran for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns after missing a season with knee injuries, junior Russell Hansbrough figures to start at running back. He netted 685 yards and four scores, mostly sharing backup duties with Murphy.
"We've just got to come out and work hard," Murphy said. "Henry was a great element to the running back group. We've just got to be able to fill in his shoes."
One of Missouri's strengths last season was the offensive and defensive lines. The entirety of Franklin and Mauk's blind side — seniors Justin Britt and Max Copeland — are gone, so senior Mitch Morse will move from right tackle to left tackle while senior Anthony Gatti moves up at left guard.
Pinkel said his linemen would likely practice in different positions, and when co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker listed assignments during a meeting, "people's eyes were just wide as hell, because they never even thought they'd play that position," Morse said. "It really is true in the fact that, especially if you're a backup, you can be thrown in no matter where at."
Despite the losses of defensive ends Sam and Ealy, Missouri may not lose much of a step with senior Markus Golden and junior Shane Ray. The duo combined for 11 sacks in reserve roles last season and both converted a turnover into a touchdown, including Ray's 73-yard fumble return against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Golden isn't worried about filling any shoes, saying there's little difference between starting and playing off the bench at Missouri.
"As you saw last year, it ain't a big deal," he said. "Man, if you can play football, you can play football. That's how it goes. That's what a lot of people make difficult. 'Oh, I'm not a starter, I'm a backup.' It doesn't matter."
Missouri will scrimmage twice next month before concluding spring camp with its annual Black and Gold Game on April 19.