A way-too-early look prediction for Mizzou football’s 2023 starting lineup

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Missouri was marred by injuries and inefficient play at some positions for almost the entirety of its season which is a large reason why the team finished 6-7 for the second straight season. PowerMizzou.com takes a way-too-early look at who could make up the starting lineup in week one of the 2023 season.

For the sake of this exercise, only recent signees from the 2023 recruiting class and players currently on the roster will be considered.

Quarterback: Brady Cook

If Brady Cook decides to stay and Mizzou head coach Eli Drinkwitz can’t find a quarterback that is much better than him in the transfer portal then Cook is likely the guy in 2023. He had an up-and-down season that got better as the season went along before having a below-average to average game in the team’s 27-17 bowl game loss to Wake Forest.

Obviously, Cook’s experience as a starting quarterback for a team that made a bowl game bodes well for him and it can be argued with all of the offensive line problems, the lack of an explosive running game on a consistent basis and a number of other things that the Tigers could be 8-5 if they would’ve got blessed with a few bounces or calls their way.

Cook completed 246 of 381 passes (64.6%) for 2,719 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also had 585 yards and six touchdowns on 139 rushes (4.2 yards per carry).

Sam Horn, who will be a redshirt freshman next season and recently signed four-star Gabarri Johnson, are very talented prospects, but asking one of the two to run a Southeastern Conference team’s offense in year one over Cook seems to be a reach. It doesn’t mean they can’t be the starting quarterback in week one. It just means that they will have to really stand out in the offseason and outperform Cook to do so.

Running back: Tavorus Jones

Cody Schrader started the first two-thirds of the season splitting about half the running back touches with Nathaniel Peat before taking over the job full-time after the week eight win over Vanderbilt. However, after the team’s week 10 loss to Kentucky, Drinkwitz said he believed the team was relying on him too much. That could’ve meant they were relying on him too much during that two-game stretch or relying on him too much in general. It seems like the latter. He never relinquished the starting role, but Drinkwitz tried to get other running backs involved again in subsequent games. All of this to say, Schrader is a good running back, but he works better when he is a part of a committee.

He finished as the team’s leader in rushing touchdowns with nine to go along with 747 yards on 170 carries (4.4 yards per carry). He also added 19 receptions for 137 yards.

Here’s where Tavorus Jones comes in. He was the team’s lone running back signee from the 12th-ranked 2022 recruiting class and he was a four-star at that. Jones will be a redshirt freshman next season and only recorded seven rushes for 25 yards and two receptions for 36 yards in 2022. Like almost every true freshman there’s a transitioning period, so there wasn’t too much pressure on him to be an impact player this season, especially with Peat and Schrader transferring in, but he has the physical tools to be a great weapon for Drinkwitz’s offense.

In his senior season at Burges (Tex.), he had 142 rushes for 1,673 yards (11.78 yards per carry) and 20 touchdowns. Of course, that’s only high school and that means just as much as recruiting rankings. It’s nice on paper, but the star rankings don’t always mean on-field production. Nonetheless, Jones could be the change-of-pace back to serve to go hand and hand with Schrader’s no-nonsense north and south rushing.

Wide receivers: Luther Burden, Theo Wease, Mekhi Miller

Luther Burden III is certain to start after a dynamic true freshman season and with Dominic Lovett‘s transfer to Georgia he will likely take over in the slot for Lovett. Burden lined up outside in the x-receiver spot due to a surplus of starting-level slot wide receivers the Tigers had at their disposal in Lovett, Barrett Banister and later Mekhi Miller. It would come as a big surprise if Burden doesn’t find himself in the slot at the h-receiver spot next season.

He recorded 45 receptions for 375 yards and five touchdowns. He also added 18 carries for 88 yards and two touchdowns in the running game and a punt return touchdown.

Oklahoma transfer Theo Wease will be a welcomed addition to the wide receiver room to help make up for the loss of Lovett and he may be able to slot into that x-receiver spot and help make way for Burden to move to the slot. Wease, the No. 11 player in the nation in the class of 2019 has had a decent college career to this point, albeit not to the level many would predict for a five-star prospect.

Wease recorded 64 catches for 1,033 yards and 10 touchdowns in three seasons in Norman with Wease recording 19 receptions for 378 yards and a touchdown this season.

Expect Chance Luper, barring any medical setback, to also have a role in this offense and be someone who can play at the x-receiver spot. Luper had a decent 2021 season with 22 receptions for 274 yards and a touchdown. If not him, Mookie Cooper could easily slide into this role too and is also a good option to stretch the field vertically. Cooper finished this season with 24 receptions for 282 yards.

Miller also had a very impactful true freshman season. He didn’t have the same number of opportunities that Burden had to make an impact, but in the opportunities he had, he played well. The running theme with Miller was that he came up big on a number of third downs throughout the season and looks like the person that can take over as the new go-to receiver on third down like Banister was over the last several seasons. He finished the year with eight receptions for 126 yards.

Four-star wide receiver Joshua Manning out of Lee’s Summit and three-star wide receiver Daniel Blood out of Destrehan (La.) could be players next year who could have a similar impact on the offense that Miller had this season. It’s unlikely that they start in week one, but they may be able to have a spot start here and there if one of the starters is out.

Tight end: Brett Norfleet

This may be a stretch because Norfleet will be a true freshman and expecting a true freshman to be a day-one starter in the SEC is a tall task. However, when you think of how inefficient and ineffective the tight end position was in 2022, Drinkwitz won’t have much to lose by starting the four-star out of Francis Howell.

Tyler Stephens played in 12 games and started six of them and recorded five receptions for 54 yards and a touchdown. Kibet Chepyator had three receptions for 26 yards in 12 games (two starts) and Ryan Hoerstkamp had two receptions for 32 yards and a touchdown in eight games (two starts). It also doesn’t help that PFF College had Chepyator and Stephens as the two lowest-graded run blockers on the team of any players that recorded 100 or more run-blocking snaps.

Norfleet at 6-7 and 225 pounds is physical and is a decent run blocker and will only get better in that aspect as he fills out his frame. He may not record even 200 yards of receiving in his first season, but if he can be competent in the run game as a blocker then that will be a boost for the position and the offense.

Offensive line: Javon Foster, Xavier Delgado, Bence Polgar, EJ Ndoma-Ogar, Armand Membou

Javon Foster was the team’s best offensive lineman by a mile and he had a decent season despite giving up a team-high four sacks and 16 pressures, according to PFF College. His numbers reflect that he wasn’t as efficient as the eye test indicates, but some of the numbers have to do with Cook’s propensity to hold the ball at times or try and scramble around and make something out of nothing. It’s unknown if Foster will come back, so Foster starting for the Tigers at left tackle next year is up in the air.

The same could be said for left guard Xavier Delgado, who is one of the most experienced linemen with 28 career starts. Delgado’s status for next year is unknown as well, but he benefitted from playing next to Foster on the line while also struggling to play alongside center Connor Tollison.

Bence Polgar transferred in from Buffalo and it appeared he was going to be in line for the starting center position before the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the season paving the way for Tollison to start. Tollison struggled immensely and tied for the second-most penalties on the team with Mitchell Walters at seven. Polgar wasn’t a good run blocker in his final season at Buffalo, but he was a serviceable pass blocker.

EJ Ndoma-Ogar took over for the struggling Walters in week nine against South Carolina and that happened to be one of the two or three best games a Missouri offensive line played all season. Ndoma-Ogar played well in that game and the first quarter of the next game before suffering a season-ending foot injury. If he comes back healthy, then Ndoma-Ogar probably mans the starting right guard spot to start the season.

Armand Membou was another true freshman who made a positive impact on offense for the Tigers this season. He got to start the last four games at right tackle, replacing Connor Wood who replaced Ndoma-Ogar at guard. Like Ndoma-Ogar it wasn’t like Membou was playing at an all-world level, but there was definitely something there. With Hyrin White and Wood off the team in 2023, this seems like Membou’s starting gig to lose.

Missouri’s second-best player in this recent recruiting class is 6-7 and 345-pound four-star, Logan Reichert, out of Raytown. He clearly has the size to play right away, but as of this moment, it’s unreasonable to assume he slides into the lineup right away.

Defensive line: Johnny Walker, Kristian Williams, Jayden Jernigan, Arden Walker

The defensive end position is one that may have to be pieced together in 2023, at least early on. Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman are league-bound and have declared for the draft. McGuire finished fourth in the SEC with seven sacks to go with 39 tackles and two forced fumbles. Coleman finished with 37 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles despite only starting three games. Trajan Jeffcoat would likely slot back into one of the starting positions if he returns, but his future is unknown. He started the first nine games before being supplanted by Coleman and racked up 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and a sack.

Assuming Jeffcoat leaves, then that paves the way for Arden Walker and Johnny Walker to slide into the starting lineups and man the end positions. Arden appeared in 11 games and had six tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery while Johnny only played six games but still managed to rack up seven tackles, two sacks and two tackles for loss. The Walkers are speed rushers compared to McGuire and Coleman who relied more on their power to pressure opposing quarterbacks.

In addition to Wease, the Tigers got Northwestern defensive end, Austin Firestone, from the transfer portal. He recorded three tackles and a sack in three games for the Wildcats and will be able to be a part of this building defensive end group with four seasons of eligibility left.

The Tigers also brought in Jahkai Lang, Jordon Harris and Serigne Tounkara as a part of the 2023 recruiting class. Tounkara, a three-star prospect out of Clear Springs (Tex.), is probably the most likely of the three to find his way into the rotation due to his explosion off of the edge.

Kristian Williams was one of many defensive transfers that played a significant role in this revamped Missouri defense. The Oregon defensive tackle transfer racked up 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, two sacks and a pass deflection in 13 games (11 starts).

Defensive tackle Jayden Jernigan also transferred in from Oklahoma State and racked up 14 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, a sack and a pass deflection in five starts.

A pair of defensive tackles that Drinkwitz and Mizzou defensive coordinator Blake Baker seem to be excited about are Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial. Both players are from last season’s recruiting class and both of them redshirted this year. The intrigue from Missouri’s coaching staff is from their size and development on the scout team. Marshall, a three-star out of St. Thomas Aquinas (Ks.), stands at 6-4 and weighs 312 pounds while Gracial is a four-star out of Saint Charles who stands at 6-4 and 323 pounds.

Linebackers: Chad Bailey and Triston Newson

This is assuming Ty’Ron Hopper declares for the NFL Draft. Hopper could transfer, but it’s more likely that he returns to Columbia or declares. After a season that saw him record 77 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four pass deflections and an interception Hopper may have played himself into what he believes is a favorable draft position. If he decides to return to the Tigers, he’s unquestionably a starter.

Chad Bailey has already stated his intentions to return to Missouri in 2023 which is significant since he is the MIKE and calls the defense. Bailey ended the season with a bang in the Gasparilla Bowl with nine tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He finished the season with 56 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three pass deflections and a fumble recovery.

Triston Newson is a recent three-star JUCO signee out of Northeast Mississippi Community College where he was named a first-team All-American after racking up 107 tackles. He will get the nod in the lineup assuming Ty’Ron Hopper declares for the NFL Draft. Hopper could transfer, but it’s more likely that he returns to Columbia or declares. After a season that saw Hopper record 77 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, four pass deflections and an interception Hopper may have played himself into what he believes is a favorable draft position.

If he decides to return to the Tigers, he’s unquestionably the starter with Newson assuming a rotational role alongside Dameon Wilson.

Secondary: Kris Abrams-Draine, Ennis Rakestraw, Jaylon Carlies, Joseph Charleston, Daylan Carnell

This group will probably be the one with the least amount of change because of how well it played and who the Tigers have returning to play the positions in this group.

Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw were one of the nation’s best cornerback duos this season with Abrams-Draine leading the SEC in pass deflections with 14 to go along with 48 tackles. Rakestraw was second in the league in pass deflections with 12 to go with 35 tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Jaylon Carlies is the only player of the five who may be a question mark because it is unknown if he will declare for the draft. He probably has some of the best hands of anyone in the secondary and had an interception in the Gasparilla Bowl to tie him with fellow safety Daylan Carnell for the team lead with three. Along with the interceptions, Carlies finished the season with 81 tackles, four tackles for loss, four pass deflections and a forced fumble.

Joseph Charleston was one of the better defensive transfers the team got over the offseason with the Clemson transfer providing a consistent presence in the third level of the defense while at the same time being able to come down and lay the wood down on opponents who were trying to make plays on underneath routes. Charleston recorded 53 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, two pass deflections and returned an interception for a touchdown.

Carnell proved to be the team’s budding star on defense with a knack for always being around the football. Carnell played behind Martez Manuel, who has declared for the draft, and played a significant role off of the bench. Carnell had recorded 28 tackles, two tackles for loss, five pass deflections, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) and two fumble recoveries. If there’s one new starter that should have the most seamless transition it’s likely to be Carnell.

The Tigers will also have four-star Cardinal Ritter safety Marvin Burks entering the fold and he may get early playing time and take over Carnell’s role as the first safety off of the bench. Baker also likes to run four-safety sets which explains Carnell’s usage this season and how Burks could be an instant contributor next season. Also, if Carlies does declare for the draft, Burks may be able to assume his spot in the lineup.

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