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July 3, 2009
THE SCHEME: This is the ultimate spread set that features multiple receivers, formations galore and lots of pre-snap movement. It's all about spreading defenses from sideline to sideline to create chasms and gaps that wideouts can slither in and out of and running backs can exploit. The key: Having a quarterback who can make the right decision quickly.
STAR POWER: The Tigers will feature one of the top backs in the Big 12 in Derrick Washington, who ran for 1,036 yards and 17 TDs last season. Washington is a bigger back who works best between the tackles. Mighty mite De'Vion Moore is a breakaway threat. Don't be shocked if Missouri leans on its backs while a new quarterback gets acclimated.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Mizzou is becoming a tight end factory of sorts, having produced the likes of NFLers Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman. The next star may be Andrew Jones. The 6-foot-5, 245-pound sophomore has flashed soft hands and an ability to find seams in coverage.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: Replacing Chase Daniel – the most prolific quarterback in school history – would be a difficult chore for any player. But Missouri's coaches believe Blaine Gabbert is up to the task. At 6-5 and 235 pounds, Gabbert is much bigger and stronger than the undersized Daniel. The question is whether Gabbert plays with the fire and moxie of the 2007 Heisman Trophy finalist.
STRONGEST AREA: Missouri lost its top two receiving targets in Jeremy Maclin and Coffman. Still, it's not as if the Tigers aren't without weapons. While the most notable returnee is Jared Perry, who had 567 receiving yards last year, the most dangerous is Danario Alexander. The 6-5 senior was one of the Big 12's top up-and-comers before injuries stunted his season in 2007. The following year, he took a back seat to Maclin. Look for Alexander to become a big-time cog and a major threat in the red zone.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: There is much hand-wringing over how Gabbert will perform. It will be difficult for him to replicate Daniel, who left Columbia as the school's greatest quarterback ever. Missouri staffers have trimmed the playbook and won't ask Gabbert to shoulder a big load – similar to what the staff did during Daniel's sophomore year in 2006. The biggest issue facing Gabbert: Will he consistently make the right decision and avoid turnovers?
THE SCHEME: This is a standard 4-3 scheme that features movement and stunting. Coach Gary Pinkel has tried to emphasis speed over size, and the result has been a quicker and faster defense. But the unit has sacrificed size, which has been a major issue at times. It's all about bending, not breaking, and limiting big plays.
STAR POWER: S William Moore and T Ziggy Hood were among the players lost to the NFL draft. A year from now, LB Sean Weatherspoon will be hearing his name called. The senior posted a Big 12-best 155 tackles in 2008 and is one of the top linebackers in America. This year, he'll be depended upon even more to guide a defense that's hurting when it comes to star power.
IMPACT NEWOMER: Keep your eye on junior college transfer E Brian Coulter. He entered spring drills as a starter and solidified his spot. The Tigers needs to get a push up field with guys like E Stryker Sulak off to the NFL. Along with sophomore Jacquies Smith, Mizzou looks strong at end.
WATCH FOR HIM TO EMERGE: CB Kevin Rutland is coming on strong as his career is winding down, which is a pattern that the departed Moore enjoyed. Rutland isn't a returning starter – like fellow CB Carl Gettis – but he may be the team's top cover man. Rutland's ability to be a playmaker finally is matching his considerable athletic skills.
STRONGEST AREA: The linebacking corps has potential. Weatherspoon is a legit Butkus Award candidate, while Luke Lambert is a veteran with savvy and an ability to find the ball and wade through traffic. Staffers like the potential of Will Ebner and Andrew Gachkar. With the defense likely in lots of nickel packages as it faces the myriad spread offenses in the Big 12, all of these guys figure to see significant action.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Stopping the pass. The Tigers ranked last in the Big 12 against the pass, surrendering an average of 286.6 yards through the air in 2008. Gettis has been an on-field regular the past two seasons and finished fifth on the team in tackles last fall. Still, he and his secondary mates need to clamp down. And it always helps if there's a good pass rush, too.
As if losing one of the conference's most-feared return men in Maclin wasn't enough, the Tigers are also coping with the graduation of PK Jeff Wolfert, who signed a free-agent contract with the Chicago Bears. Senior Tanner Mills will enter August two-a-days as the favorite to replace Wolfert, who made all 73 of his extra-point attempts and 20 of his 27 field-goal tries last season. He was money.
Pinkel experienced no coaching staff turnover during his first eight seasons at Mizzou. Now, he suffered major tumult with offensive coordinator Dave Christensen leaving to become head coach at Wyoming and defensive coordinator Max Eberflus taking a job coaching linebackers with the Cleveland Browns. Pinkel promoted from within, so don't expect any major schematic changes. Quarterbacks coach David Yost will run the offense. He is an up-and-comer with a bright future. Linebackers coach Dave Steckel will coordinate the defense.
For the third year in a row, the Tigers open the season vs. Illinois in St. Louis. Missouri has won the last four matchups. It's vital for Mizzou to get off to a 3-0 start, as a five-game run from Sept. 25 to Oct. 31 will define the season. It begins with a dangerous trip to Nevada and includes huge home tilts vs. Nebraska and Texas. The Tigers could finish fast with a favorable November slate that again concludes with a game vs. Kansas in Kansas City, Mo. For the second year in a row, Mizzou catches a break by not playing Oklahoma or Texas Tech.
Not long ago, a 10-4 record at Missouri would've seemed like a miracle or a flash in the pan. In 2008, though, it was viewed as a mild disappointment. A season that began with talk of a national championship and a Heisman Trophy for Daniel ended with a less-than-impressive overtime victory over Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl. Even though the Tigers fell short of expectations last season, the program is still light-years ahead of where it was during the early stages of Pinkel's tenure. Missouri has appeared in four consecutive bowl games – the Tigers won three of them – and has reached the Big 12 title game in each of the past two seasons. Accomplishing the feat a third straight time doesn't seem likely considering the graduation of standouts such as Daniel, Maclin, Coffman and Hood. Missouri lost a Big 12-high six players to the 2009 NFL draft. Though the prevailing thought around the league is that Missouri is entering a rebuilding year, conference opponents know that taking Pinkel and the Tigers lightly would be a mistake.
Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.