Top five things to watch as Mizzou football opens camp

Tigers’ second SEC season begins on Thursday

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

After a disappointing 2012 season in which Missouri had its first losing campaign since 2004, it’s time for Tigers fans to look ahead. Practice starts on Thursday for the Tigers’ second season in the Southeastern Conference. The season’s first game, against Murray State, is just weeks off, scheduled for August 31.

Here is my list of the top five biggest concerns, areas of interest, the factors most important to success, question marks — however you want to view this. Actually, I take the coward’s way out. There are four obvious choices and then hedge my bets with a whole long list of “maybes.” I’m giving them in the order of importance I truly consider them to be. An issue I has been massively over-stated by many observers falls farther down on my list, making my first selection a bit of a surprise.

1. DGB. Well, not just DGB, the whole group of receivers, but mostly Dorial Green-Beckham is the first thing I’m going to be looking at on the Kadlec Practice Fields come Thursday. Six of Mizzou’s top eight receivers are back from last year, and they have the potential to be a pretty good group overall.

But to put it in terms SEC culture will understand, “pretty good don’t feed the bulldog.” And the best opportunity for Mizzou to be not just good but outstanding is for a big season from Green-Beckham. In the last five games of 2012 we saw flashes of how big of a deal DGB might be. The time to talk “potential” is over, DGB has the ability to be a top-notch receiver right now, and if that turns into performance on the field, Mizzou suddenly becomes a whole lot scarier on offense.

2. Replacing Sheldon Richardson. Every strong team in the SEC has to deal with losing underclassmen to the NFL, such is the nature of Division I college football in the 21st century. But very few if any will leave a bigger hole than his absence. Richardson was a monster on the defensive line on a team that desperately needed a monster on the line.

But the good news is, while there are probably not any top ten draft choices on this line, there are some pretty fierce linemen still on the Tigers’ roster. From Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, who’ve been showing serious ability for some time now, to Matt Hoch, who has flipped from offense to defense and showed constant improvement through the year (and impressed in the spring Black and Gold scrimmage,) and some significant depth, this could be a strong unit for the Tigers. If I had to pick one guy to watch most closely the first few days of camp, I’d select Markus Golden. Highly touted as a junior college transfer, he has moved up front and has the speed and quickness to be a real pest from the end position.

james franklin passes

James Franklin (1) eludes Kentucky defender Avery Williamson (40) on Oct. 27, 2012, his first game back after sitting out for three weeks in an injury.

3.  Yes, sir, he’s my quarterback. From his unfailing politeness (he even calls student reporters younger than he is “sir”) to the much analyzed decision to forgo pain drugs during his injury-riddled 2012 campaign. There have been those who have questioned the toughness of Tigers’ QB James Franklin. You will not find me among them. While I may or may not agree with his choice on the issue of pills, he has shown throughout his career that he’ll play with pain and fight through challenges and difficulties. We’ve seen a considerable commitment to coming back stronger than ever and I expect a big year out of him (with the obvious “if healthy” disclaimer.)

And if you’re thinking “but I heard there’ll be an open competition, is he really the starter?” don’t kid yourself. There was far too much made about the “open competition” comment by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. Fact is, the open competition thing has ALWAYS been GP’s policy at every position, every year. There was open competition between Chase Daniel and Jimmy Costello. There will be open competition between E.J. Gaines and whatever freshman walk-on wants to try out for the corner position. That’s just how Pinkel does things.

But he made it clear at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., that Franklin will be his starting QB unless something extraordinary happens. And with Franklin seemingly back to full health and a real offensive line in front of him, we should see the return of the guy who gave Mizzou 36 touchdowns in 2011, or maybe even better.

4.  A whole new game. Well, that might be overstating things a little. But with the departure of offensive coordinator David Yost, there will be a new look to the Tigers offense. And while Yost was given far more of the blame for the flaccid offense of 2012, this should be a positive development for Mizzou. Things seemed a little crisper and quicker in the spring new OC Josh Henson, and Andy Hill has also been given a well-deserved promotion the quarterback coach. All Hill has done is put three straight quarterbacks into the NFL, and while some were unhappy about Pinkel sticking with his old habit of promoting from within, there’s nobody more qualified than Hill to get the best out of either Franklin or whoever follow in his footsteps. And the new addition to the coaching staff, Pat Washington, has an impressive pedigree in the SEC including 11 years during the height of greatness at Tennessee under Phil Fulmer. Players listen to a guy who can flash a national championship ring.

5. Wildcard. Speaking of experience, I’ve learned one thing in the years talking about college sports: The only thing I can guarantee you about Mizzou football 2013 is that SOMETHING very important will happen, either positive or negative, that we have no idea about right now. It would be folly for me to tell you that the emergence of a new healthy Henry Josey is more important than whether we get the Randy Ponder who’s looked so excellent at times or the Randy Ponder who seemed to struggle late against Syracuse. How good are the linebackers? Is Evan Boehm moving to center a good idea? Will the kicking game hold up? Will someone of key importance be lost to injury or off-field knuckleheadedness? Will some guy we’re not even talking about come from the true depths of the depth chart to beat out a supposedly entrenched starter and become a surprise superstar? It’s less likely with Chase Abbington headed to Hutchinson Kansas instead of Columbia this week but will one of the incoming freshmen make an immediate contribution? Or will Duron Singleton step in immediately from junior college and contribute at safety? Does Sean Culkin really beat out Eric Waters at tight end?

I’m betting there’s a very important factor that will make a big difference for Missouri in 2013 that isn’t even in that long list. And that is why we love college football and look forward to Thursday, to August 31, and to a new season of possibilities for Tiger football.

Darren Hellwege is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association and the Football Writers Association of America

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