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Odom's second season brings spring questions

Missouri Florida Football

Missouri head coach Barry Odom shouts encouragement to his players during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo)

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COLUMBIA, MO. • As Barry Odom prepares for his second season as Missouri’s football coach, there’s one important word he’s learned to use more often.

No.

Coming off a 4-8 season in his first year as a college head coach, Odom feels more prepared, more in control and, in his words, “happier” as spring practices start Tuesday. He has made some staff changes, including the addition of his younger brother Brian to coach outside linebackers. He’s also delegated some responsibilities around the program and, no less important, learned how to manage his time away from the office.

“I’ve developed the ability to say ‘No’ to some things outside that quite honestly last year I didn’t feel like I could,” he said in his office last week. “I’ve spent a lot more time coaching football. I’m a lot happier than I was a year ago at this time. ... I’ve got a lot more comfort and I also feel the urgency on how much better we need to get.”

A year ago, Odom stepped into a program still reeling from a losing season, coach Gary Pinkel’s retirement and the player boycott in November 2015 that alienated portions of the fan base. Odom indicated he felt compelled to accept every invitation to speaking events at which he could soothe concerns about the program’s direction. Those events came at a price, and Odom believes he didn’t spend enough time with football matters as last season got closer. If that meant he now turns down a speech at the Hy-Vee Breakfast Club, so be it.

“There are times that I didn’t make our program better on some of the things that I said ‘Yes’ to,” he said. “I know what I have to do to get this team where we need to be. That’s in that (meeting) room in there and coaching every day.”

Will that make a difference on the field this year? The pieces will start coming together this spring.

Here are five questions to explore as Mizzou begins five weeks of spring drills.

1. WHAT’S THE PLAN ON DEFENSE?

Odom has two new defensive coaches on the staff and it’s the second one that stirred thoughts of a scheme change. Brian Odom comes from Washington State to coach outside linebackers, giving Mizzou two linebackers coaches among the four defensive position coaches.

Defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross remains on staff and will coach inside linebackers. Almost every major conference team that employed two linebacker coaches last year ran the 3-4 defense as its base structure. Mizzou generally has played with four down linemen each of the last two years , but Odom expects more odd-man fronts this year.

A year ago, Odom and Cross changed the defense to a more gap-oriented read-and-react system that they later scrapped midseason when Odom took over the play-calling duties. Odom unleashed his defensive line in the second half of the season and produced a more potent pass rush. He plans to stick with that approach this year. The Tigers have installed five differently structured packages for the defense this spring, Odom said.

2. WHERE’S THE DEPTH AT TACKLE?

The biggest personnel questions come at defensive tackle, where the Tigers have just three healthy scholarship options for the spring: returning starter A.J. Logan as well as Tyrell Jacobs, who hasn’t played a down on Saturdays, and newly arrived junior college transfer Rashad Brandon. By August, MU expects to have Terry Beckner Jr. and Markell Utsey recovered from torn knee ligaments that cut short their 2016 seasons. To make up for the shortage of available tackles this spring, each defensive end will spend at least one practice moonlighting at tackle.

3. CAN THE OFFENSE MANAGE EXPECTATIONS?

While Odom has to reconstruct the defense, there’s a different level of expectation for an offense that returns 10 starters, including a 3,000-yard passer (Drew Lock), a 1,000-yard rusher (Damarea Crockett) and a 1,000-yard receiver (J’Mon Moore), along with every offensive linemen who started a game last year. Unlike last spring, the training wheels are off in coordinator Josh Heupel’s second year.

“Those guys,” Odom said, “the way that they ended the season, the way that they were playing together, you hope you pick that up (right away) and they continue to develop.”

4. WHO’S BEHIND LOCK?

Last year, Mizzou had the luxury of a game-experienced backup quarterback in Marvin Zanders. He’s no longer with the program and will transfer to Virginia after the spring semester, leaving MU with sophomore Jack Lowary and redshirt freshman Micah Wilson as the top options behind Lock.

Does that worry Odom?

“Hell yes,” he said. “No doubt. I think of that often. We’ve got to prepare them and train them and get them ready to go play ’cause they’re a snap away” from playing.

5. ARE SPECIAL TEAMS SOLUTIONS ON THE WAY?

Odom personally coached several special teams units last year but since has delegated roles to his staff. Groups of three to four positions coaches have been assigned to each unit.

“I was pretty hard-headed last year on that stuff and obviously I didn’t have it all figured out because we weren’t very good,” Odom said. “I like this setup.”

Starting with the kicking situation. Tucker McCann struggled to consistently kick field goals and extra points last year as a freshman and he’ll have some competition from walk-ons this spring and during preseason camp.

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