SEC: Jaleel Clark
Returning starters: Six on offense, seven on defense and the place-kicker and punter on special teams.
Star power: James Franklin enters his first season in the SEC as possibly the league's best dual-threat quarterback after passing for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushing for another 981 yards and 15 more scores last fall.
New faces: The face everyone is excited about seeing is true freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. He was the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2012 class and the coaches think he could make an immediate impact for the Tigers as a deep threat. Quarterback Maty Mauk was a Parade All-American and the two-time Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year. The staff expects big things from him down the road, and with James Franklin recovering from shoulder surgery, Mauk could compete for more reps in fall camp.
Don’t forget about: Senior linebacker Will Ebner missed most of last year, after suffering a season-ending injury in the first game. Before his injury, he played in 36 career games, registering 146 tackles. The starting middle linebacker was granted an extra year of eligibility and will lead a very solid linebacking corps.
Big shoes to fill: It's no secret the Tigers like to use their tight ends, and Michael Egnew was one of the best to come through Columbia. Now, Missouri's staff is looking to junior Eric Waters to fill in. However, Waters suffered an MCL injury this spring that required surgery. Gary Pinkel said this spring that he expects Waters to be healthy this fall. He'll then have to compete with Bud Sasser, who was also injured this spring after suffering a hamstring injury, and Jaleel Clark, who struggled at times this spring, but he'll get his chance to compete for time as well.
Key battles: There should be some fun battles during fall camp at both safety spots. Kenronte Walker (strong safety) and Braylon Webb (free safety) exited the spring as starters, but their jobs aren't solidified. Sophomore Daniel Easterly will compete with Walker for time, while junior Matt White is after Webb's spot. Also, watch out for junior Tavon Bolden. Keep an eye on the Z receiver spot as well. A banged up L'Damian Washington allowed Jimmie Hunt more opportunities to impress in the spring, and he did. He caught an 88-yard touchdown pass in the spring game and will make it tough for Washington to claim the Z spot.
Rising star: One thing that all good SEC teams have is a solid pass rusher. While the staff expects to get defensive end Brad Madison back at full strength this fall, a guy to keep an eye on is fellow end Kony Ealy. He played here and there as a redshirt freshman last year, but Mizzou's staff is very excited about his potential in 2012. He's extremely athletic, possesses good speed and is coming off a solid spring.
Bottom line: The Tigers are entering their first season in the SEC with solid experience on both sides of the ball and have the offensive playmakers to make a run at the SEC East title. They are bringing in a true spread and are undersized on both lines, but there's no question this team is very confident in its ability. If Franklin stays healthy, this offense could truly be fun to watch. But it's going up against some tough defenses in the East and some growing pains could occur in the Tigers' first year in their new conference.
Outside of veteran T.J. Moe, who will be a senior this fall, Missouri's returning receiving targets have combined for 51 catches for 712 yards and five touchdowns in their careers.
But when you talk to players and coaches at Missouri, those numbers tell a much different story. They say that while the returners aren’t burning up the stat sheet, it hasn't been because of a lack of talent.
"It's only unproven because guys haven't got the chance to do anything yet," Moe said. "We have a lot of good receivers out here and we have a lot of guys out here who have made plays."
Last year, Moe led the Tigers with 54 receptions and 649 yards. Behind him, Missouri had former All-American tight end Michael Egnew (50 receptions) and seniors Wes Kemp (29 receptions) and Jerrel Jackson (17 receptions), who combined for 36 starts.
"It's hard to beat those guys out because they do all the right things," offensive coordinator David Yost said.
While most of the talk concerning Missouri's receivers has revolved around inexperience and numbers, Yost and Co. are excited about what this group can do.
Yost said both received more time as the season went on because of how explosive they were (Lucas has been clocked running a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash). Both ended the year averaging 18 yards per catch.
Washington was banged up this spring, but Lucas said he took full advantage of his time on the field. With more reps, Lucas said he shook the laziness that hurt him last year. His jogging and trudging around the field turned into sprints, his head stopped swimming and he finally learned how to finish plays after getting more comfortable in Missouri's offense.
"It comes with confidence, really," said Lucas, who caught four passes for 81 yards in Missouri's spring game. "When you don't really know exactly [what's going on] and you're guessing on what your exact assignment is it slows you down. Whenever you're out there just playing, you can play at your top-end speed."
Players like Bud Sasser, who worked at the Y position/tight end position, Gahn McGaffie and Jimmie Hunt, who caught an 88-yard touchdown in the spring game, all impressed this spring. So did tight end Eric Waters, who will now take over for Egnew, before he went down with an MCL injury that required surgery. Coach Gary Pinkel said Waters, who has two career catches, will be a key cog in the offense and should be back up to speed in three months.
Upperclassmen Rolandis Woodland, Jaleel Clark and Kerwin Stricker should also contribute more this fall and much ballyhooed recruit Dorial Green-Beckham, known around the program as "the big guy," will be on campus this summer.
"We're in pretty good shape," Pinkel said.
Before spring practice, 7-on-7 sessions helped build receiver chemistry, but what really brought this group together was not having quarterback James Franklin healthy this spring. After being sidelined with a shoulder injury, the receivers were forced to work with backups Corbin Berkstresser, Alex Demczak and Ashton Glaser.
Lucas said it was tough building chemistry with the other quarterbacks at first, but it forced the receivers to be more vocal in film sessions and in the huddle with the QBs
It also helped the receivers learn to take on more responsibility in the offense. They felt as though they were the voices this spring, and Lucas said that will be more beneficial for this group than in past seasons.
"We just want to be dominant," he said.
"We're kind of like the motor for [the offense]. We run the pace out there. If the wideouts are having a good day, it feels like the offense is having a good day."
OUT: TE Michael Egnew: His stats weren't eye-popping last season, but he was one of Missouri's most reliable pass catchers. A year removed from being a Mackey Award finalist after catching 90 passes for 762 yards and five touchdowns, Egnew was second on the team with 50 catches for 523 yards and three touchdowns. His numbers went down in 2011, but that didn't mean he wasn't important to the Tigers' offense. He made his mark catching the ball, but he was also a decent blocker and helped open up things in both the passing and running game. Missouri's offense is still looking for a big-play threat in its passing game and Egnew showed that ability at times with the Tigers. Missouri's offense has always thrived with a solid tight end in its offense, so losing Egnew is a big hit for this team.
IN: Eric Waters, Bud Sasser, Jaleel Clark, Steve Drain, Kyle Peasel or Brandon Colbert: The Tigers have a handful of players vying for time at tight end this spring, but Waters is the one that most expect to step right into Egnew's spot. He mostly played special teams last season and only caught two passes, but one went for a 42-yard touchdown. Quarterback James Franklin said earlier this spring that he had seen a ton of improvement out of Waters during preseason passing sessions. His routes looked crisper and Franklin said he started developing better chemistry with Waters before spring practice began. At 6 feet 4 inches and 240 pounds, the junior tight end is equipped with a big frame for defenders to handle, but also has quality speed to be a matchup issue through the middle of the field. Clark and Sasser are getting some work at tight end this spring in the Y-position. Incoming freshman Dorial Green-Beckham could get work there as well when he arrives. Sasser should get more playing time this fall with him getting more reps at tight end. He caught three passes last season and has the speed to stretch the field as more of a hybrid player. Clark worked primarily on special teams last year, recording seven tackles. Drain, Peasel and Colbert have yet to register stats during their Missouri careers.
Schedule: Missouri opens practice Tuesday at 4:30 p.m. ET and concludes the spring with its Black & Gold Spring Game on April 14 at 2 p.m. ET. The Tigers will hold scrimmages on March 17 at 10 a.m. ET and April 7 at 10 a.m. ET.
What's new: Well, Missouri will train this spring for its first season in the SEC. The Tigers left the Big 12 last fall and will officially join their new conference at July 1. The Big 12 logo is no longer at Missouri's football facility and there shouldn't be any shortage of SEC gear floating around the Tigers' practice field this spring. There will no doubt be some changes to how the Tigers operate in practice and in the weight room as they get ready for their new conference foes.On the mend: The Tigers enter the spring with a handful of names on the injured list. The biggest name, of course, is running back Henry Josey, who is still recovering from that devastating knee injury he suffered last season. Josey is supposed to undergo another surgery this spring, so he won't be available to practice and no one is sure if he'll be back this fall, either. Defensive end Brad Madison and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson are both rehabbing from shoulder surgery and are expected to miss most of spring practice. Defensive tackle Marvin Foster is out for the spring after tearing his ACL during offseason conditioning. The offensive line is also banged up, as Anthony Gatti is recovering from ACL surgery, while Mark Hill is coming off of a procedure to repair a blood clot. Lineman Connor McGovern is also recovering from surgery.
Question marks: Missouri's offensive and defensive lines both lost three starters from 2011. That's six starting linemen gone on a team making the move to a true line-of-scrimmage league. The offensive line will be banged up this spring, but a positive is that four returning linemen have starting experience. There's a chance that Missouri will have just one first-year starter up front this fall (left guard Mitch Morse). Still, replacing three quality starters on a solid line will be tough. Defensively, Missouri is very thin at defensive tackle. Richardson is recovering from surgery, so the Tigers will throw out four tackles with six combined starts -- all coming from senior Jimmy Burge, who saw his production dip in 2011. Madison is also recovering from surgery at defensive end, but that position is in better shape, as Brayden Burnett, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam have played in 63 combined games.
Key battle: The Tigers said goodbye to three starting pass catchers from 2011, meaning this area of the team should be intense to watch this spring. Most notably, tight end Michael Egnew is gone. T.J. Moe returns as the Tigers' leading receiver, while the coaches are hoping for big things from Marcus Lucas, but after that there are a lot of questions. There are bodies to throw out there, but there isn't a ton of past production to go with those bodies. Outside of Moe and Lucas, Missouri's returning receiving threats have combined for 51 catches for 712 yards and five touchdowns in their careers. L'Damian Washington should continue to be used as a deep threat with Lucas, while Eric Waters should replace Egnew at tight end. Keep an eye on upperclassmen Jaleel Clark, Gahn McGaffie, Kerwin Stricker and Rolandis Woodland, who could challenge for time this spring as well. All of these players should be working extra hard before top recruit Dorial Green-Beckham arrives this summer.
Don't forget about: Missouri might be thin up front defensively, but the linebacker spot is loaded. Starters Andrew Wilson, who led the Tigers with 98 tackles in 2011, and Zaviar Gooden, who was third in tackles last year, are both back. The Tigers also return Will Ebner, who was granted a fifth year. Those three have combined for 484 career tackles. Redshirt junior Donovan Bonner should be Missouri's top reserve with his ability to play all three linebacker positions. Redshirt sophomore Darvin Ruise played mostly special teams, but should get more reps at linebacker this spring.
Breaking out: Lucas didn't haul in a ton of catches last season, but he showed that he can be that big-play wide receiver Missouri is searching for. He caught 23 passes for 414 yards and five touchdowns. That's an average of 18 yards per catch. He should receive more reps this spring and should improve on his 2011 numbers. He will likely play on the outside for the Tigers and will likely be Missouri's top deep threat this spring.
All eyes on: As Missouri prepares to make the transition to face SEC defenses week in and week out, quarterback James Franklin will receive even more attention. He had a true breakout season in 2011, passing for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns, while adding 981 rushing yards and 15 more scores. But he and his coaches will have to make some adjustments to the offense in order to combat the SEC speed they'll see this fall. Franklin enters the year as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC, but in order to build off of his 2011 season, he'll have to improve on some parts of his game, including accuracy and his downfield passing. There's even more pressure on Franklin with Josey out and with questions still surrounding the receiving corps. Franklin has all the talent to succeed in the SEC, but you have to believe that tweaks need to be made to Missouri's offense to help him along the way.