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Mizzou football's 10 to watch

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Missouri Spring Game Football

Missouri players run onto the field as they are announced before an NCAA college spring football game Saturday, April 18, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. • If you’re keeping score at home, there are only 133 days until the Missouri football season kicks off Sept. 5 against SEMO. (OK, if you don’t count FCS games as the actual start to the season, you’re countdown clock reads 140 days until the Arkansas State game on Sept. 12).

Spring practices are history, and the team now goes into bunker mode as far as media coverage goes. “Voluntary” summer workouts will begin soon enough — and hopefully you read those quote marks envisioning sarcastic air quotes.

While the spring scrimmages are still fresh in our memory, now’s a good time to look back at 10 players who impressed and intrigued. These aren’t necessarily the 10 best players from the spring, not necessarily 10 breakout players or Mizzou’s 10 most important players. Just 10 who made a strong impression and should find their way into stories when coverage perks up again in August. In no particular order, here are 10 who caught our eye this spring …

Nate Crawford, offensive tackle

A converted defensive tackle, Crawford moved to offense last year and floated all around the line from guard to tackle. With 2014 left tackle Mitch Morse off to the NFL, the offensive staff spent the spring taking a sledge hammer to the O-line depth at every position except center where Evan Boehm returns for a third season. When the staff put the pieces back together, Crawford split the right tackle duties for the bulk of the spring, usually rotating with sophomore Clay Rhodes, who began the spring No. 1 at the position. Just a redshirt sophomore, Crawford is still building his offensive lineman muscle memory. As a defensive tackle, his impulse was always to lurch forward in attack mode. In pass protection, Crawford has to shuffle his steps in reverse with a kickslide that’s still under development. But Ricker loves his attitude and work ethic. “He’s dying to be good,” Ricker said.

Marvin Zanders, quarterback

Before the start of spring practices, some fans were convinced the redshirt freshman was destined for a move to receiver. It never happened over the course of 15 practices — and unless Zanders changes his mind between now and preseason camp, it won’t happen. Mostly running the third and fourth offenses, Zanders completed less than half his scrimmage passes (22 of 52) but had the best yards-per-attempt average among MU’s four scholarship quarterbacks (5.04). He ran nine times in four scrimmages for a productive 68 yards, lending credence to the theory that he could provide the offense a spark if given a small package of plays to run each week. But that’s never been Gary Pinkel’s philosophy when it comes to using backup quarterbacks — unless he’s grooming the backup to become the next year’s starter. That’s clearly not the case here, especially considering Eddie Printz is the No. 2 quarterback and the coach’s choice as the team’s most improved QB for the spring. (Not to mention, Mauk is just a junior and likely the starting QB again in 2016.) That said, it’s not like Zanders’ strengths as a scrambler and open-field runner are weaknesses for Mauk. Where does that leave Zanders? He’s definitely worth watching again in August.

Clarence Green, linebacker

At the start of spring practices, Green looked like a prime candidate to possibly end his career in Springfield — as an instant starter at Missouri State, where he could play his senior season for former position coach and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. Green could get the playing time with the Bears he might not get at Mizzou plus give the MU staff some roster relief and free up scholarship space for the incoming freshman class. Then the senior went out and had arguably the most productive spring of any returning linebacker. Mostly playing with the No. 2 defense, which means he mostly faced the No. 1 offense, Green was often the most active defender on the field and racked up four tackles for loss, second on the team and the most among any linebacker, plus two sacks and two pass breakups. This fall, he could again rotate with Donavin Newsom at the strongside position if not take over the starting job. 

Rickey Hatley, defensive tackle

If Josh Augusta is “Big Bear,” what does that make the man who just passed him on the depth chart? Hatley, checking in this spring at 295 pounds, is clearly not bigger than the 345-pound Augusta. Maybe “Better Bear?” Hatley, not unlike Michael Sam before him years earlier, was one of the least celebrated recruits in the 2012 recruiting class. He bounced between tackle and end the last few years, but with Missouri having to replace Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent on the inside, Hatley and his waistline committed to playing tackle and he put on enough solid weight to hold up as a permanent tackle. Then he went and outplayed Augusta and eclipsed him on the depth chart. “I feel like I’ve earned it after last year, when I didn’t get as many reps as I thought I’d get,” Hatley said. “Coming into this spring, I wanted to take it all on the field.”

Jason Reese, tight end

With a shortage of established players at wide receiver, Pinkel has mentioned the possibility of playing more formations with multiple tight ends on the field. That would mean more chances for Reese. Then again, Reese might earn more looks in formations with a single tight end on the field. Sean Culkin returns after starting last season but he missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. Culkin has struggled to stay healthy throughout his career — though he played and started in all 14 games last year and caught 20 passes — but Reese could emerge as the more potent pass-catcher. He got loose downfield a few times during the last two scrimmages and picked up first downs for the No. 1 offense. Don’t be surprised if the staff talks about Reese as a co-starter this fall with Culkin.

Charles Harris & Marcus Loud, defensive end

We’re cheating here by listing two players, but the sophomore first-time starters are going to be measured as a tandem to some degree. That’s the pressure that comes along with replacing the most productive defensive end pairing perhaps in school history. It’s unrealistic and a bit unfair to expect Harris and Loud to duplicate Shane Ray and Markus Golden’s combined 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss, but you won’t find a hungrier set of teammates on the 2015 roster. Harris and Loud seem to get the challenge that comes with playing what’s become the premier position on the Mizzou defense, if not the entire roster. It’s not a burden to be the NEXT Mizzou defensive ends under assistant coach Craig Kuligowski and his D-line factory. More like a responsibility. “With the consistency of producing high-level players, there’s an expectation level,” Pinkel said. “That’s good. I think Coach Kool, who does a great job, he puts that in their face in a positive way. Even last year and the year before, you’re watching these guys playing at a high level in this league and a lot of them are playing in the NFL, you see their work ethic. You see what their game’s like. You see their attitude. You see their mental side, how they compete. I told those young guys, ‘You’ve got to look at that and eventually yourself try to do the same things.’” In the four spring scrimmages, Harris and Loud combined for 6.5 sacks and nine tackles for a loss, plus an interception returned for a touchdown by Harris. There should be more to come.

Raymond Wingo, slot receiver

In two scrimmages after moving from cornerback, the redshirt freshman caught five passes for more yards (73) than all but one receiver who played in all four scrimmages. Granted, Wingo did his damage against the No. 3 defense. But he showed some glimpses of the slippery burst he displayed on a weekly basis at St. Louis University High against MCC competition. Wingo has some ground to make up if he’s going to start in the slot, but he’s a similar style of athlete as former all-purpose specialist Marcus Murphy, who the staff wanted to use as a slot receiver last year until injuries at tailback shelved those plans. The staff could have their new all-purpose weapon in Wingo. Their only regret might be waiting so long to make the move.

Aarion Penton, cornerback

What’s a returning starter doing here? Penton became a pretty good corner in the SEC last year, his first as a full-time starter. This year, the staff will want to see more. He apparently did just that this spring, becoming the rare returning starter to earn the coaches’ vote as the most improved player at his position group. Penton picked off a team-high three passes in four scrimmages and had another two knockdowns. Under new defensive coordinator Barry Odom, Penton could play more press-man coverage this fall — though the corners played closer to the line last year than most realize — and that strategy could take advantage of his physical style and strength at the line of scrimmage. “I’m kind of undersized, but I’m really aggressive, and that’s how I’ve been from day one,” Penton said. “This is the best conference in college football, so your opponent is going to get some plays. It’s up to you to step up when it’s nut-cutting time and make sure he doesn’t get a play when he needs to make a play.” Penton also got second-team work with the nickel package as the nickelback, where he’s assigned to cover slot receivers and play a bigger role stopping the run in the box.

Tyler Hunt, tailback

Missouri has some depth issues at tailback. Trevon Walters missed most of the spring with a torn ACL, underwent surgery this week and could return by September, at the earliest. Russell Hansbrough is a solid No. 1 option but hasn't always stayed healthy. Ish Witter didn’t do much in the scrimmages but the staff saw enough to name him the group’s most improved player. Chase Abbington arrives this summer from junior college along with two more freshman backs, Marquise Doherty and Ryan Williams. Nobody knows when or if Morgan Steward and his surgically repaired hip will be able to absorb blows in the SEC. So, what about Hunt? The former walk-on went on scholarship last year and mostly played on special teams. He gets most of his carries during spring and preseason scrimmages and produces more often than not. He gets tough yards and can break his share of tackles. He took most of his snaps against the No. 1 defense this spring, one of the better defenses in the SEC, and that’s while running behind MU’s No. 2 offensive line, and finished with 67 yards on 21 carries. Not great but the Tigers could do worse than giving the senior back some carries this fall.

J’Mon Moore, wide receiver

Who is this team’s No. 1 receiver? Does it have one? Does it matter? When there’s not a clear-cut No. 1 option in this offense, the tendency has been to load up on passes to a slot receiver who poses matchup problems in the middle of the field. That didn’t appear to be the strategy this spring as Moore led the team by a wide margin with 13 scrimmage catches for 136 yards, plus two of the three TD passes thrown in the four scrimmages. He might have the most pure talent of any receiver on the team, but can he put it together to become a consistent threat for Mauk and a reliable option when the team needs to convert a third-and-6? That’s what Bud Sasser became last year and was the team’s most valuable offensive player because of his ability to get open and grab the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it was coming his way. Is Moore ready to take on that role? He had a chance to convert a third down in the third scrimmage, made a nice grab along the sideline but didn’t have his feet inbounds. He hasn’t always caught the ball cleanly either, but made progress there this spring. Will he emerge as Mauk’s favorite target this fall? Will Nate Brown, who missed 14 of 15 practices with a knee injury, recover and catch up in time to become that productive target in the slot? Lots of questions here. Not many answers unfolded this spring. 

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