After winning consecutive SEC Eastern division titles, it was a step back for the Tigers in 2015, finishing 5-7 overall and just 1-7 in the SEC in what was Gary Pinkel’s final year in charge of the team. Barry Odom takes over and while there are concerns over how the offense will fare, there is once again a fantastic defense in place that will be the strength of the team and features their top draft-eligible prospects
THE TOP 5
Charles Harris, rJr, EDGE, #91 – 6ft 3, 255 lbs
Missouri’s reputation for producing NFL-calibre pass rushers has been growing year on year as they continue to develop them at an impressive rate, and they have two more quality draft eligible prospects that might consider leaving early to go pro. Harris was a constant terror throughout 2015 as one of the most destructive edge players in the country, as he truly dominated many games as the most impactful player on the field. His second season for the Tigers ended with 56 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss (TFLs), 7 sacks, 10 further quarterback hurries, 2 forced fumbles and a pass breakup. What immediately stands out with Harris is the endless relentlessly high motor. So many of his plays come as much through continuing to hustle, to put in a second, third and fourth effort to find his way to the ball carrier, which pays off for him on so many occasions. He is so much more than a hard worker though. Harris’ game is about speed rather than power. His quick reactions off the snap, fast acceleration, and changes of direction that knock blockers off balance all contribute to the frequency with which he finds his way into the backfield, along with an array of pass rush moves in which he uses his hands very well to keep offensive linemen from locking onto him. Spin moves and switching it up to an inside move are regularly effective. That quickness and good athleticism translates to his play in space, looking comfortable and natural dropping backward and to play some off-ball run defense. That is promising to see, as though he is deployed as a defense end from a 3-point stance for the most part in college, his size could see him fitting best standing up for the NFL, and that more well-rounded skill set will encourage that he can take on all aspects of that role at the next level. As mentioned previously, his game isn’t about strength, and is something that is lacking right now, notable often as he engages with blocking O-linemen. He could look to add more power in his punch as he progresses, but if not, he’s perfectly good at what he does. The level of impact he has is first-round worthy.
Walter Brady, rSo, EDGE, #56 – 6ft 3, 255 lbs
Shane Ray’s sensational season for the Tigers in 2014 led to his selection in the first round of the following NFL draft, but it appeared that he never left last year. Brady took the departed Ray’s vacated number 56 jersey and played in a manner fitting of its former owner. Only a redshirt freshman, Brady led all freshman in the nation in sacks with 7 in his first season of college football. The complete numbers read as 40 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 7 sacks, 7 QB hurries, 2 pass breakups, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble. Few first year defensive players had a more impactful season than that anywhere. It’s becoming more common for some redshirt sophomores to enter the draft with two years of eligibility remaining, and if Brady takes another big leap forward again in 2016, those two big seasons of great play could be more than enough quality game film to convince NFL scouts and personnel already. What really impressed most about Brady last year was not just the play in the backfield, but it was how high his football IQ looked for someone of his lack of experience, with his versatile impact as a run defender and playing the pass game going back as well as forward. He is already using his hands well, times his rushes to perfection, uses an effective inside rush at the right times, and disengages well to get into positions to take on the ball carrier as just some of the skills he demonstrates. He just looks like a real natural football player who understands instinctively how to play the game. It’s not a great comparison, but still, he reminds me a little of a less explosive version of Jamie Collins. That explosion element is where his game is slightly lacking, possibly not truly elite in some of the physical measurables and testing numbers, but that’s about all to question and he clearly knows how to make up for anything that may be lacking. Despite only have one season to judge him on so far, he looks like another early round talent off this Tigers production line.
Aarion Penton, Sr, CB, #11 – 5ft 10, 190 lbs
The quality of Missouri’s draft class might rely on at least one of those underclassmen above entering early to provide a star name for the event, as outside of that there’s a few other talented players, but who are more likely to be either late rounders or go undrafted depending on how the 2016 season goes. The prospect I like the most right now out of the seniors on the roster is Penton, a cornerback whose boundless energy makes him very enjoyable to watch on film. He may be small, but Penton has everything else, looking so adept to playing the position with an all-round game and skill set. What he lacks in size, he makes up for with athletic ability that sees him cover the field effectively on all levels of the defense, and also on special teams where he sees some use as a punt returner that included taking one back all the way for a touchdown last season. The quickness around the field sees him contribute very well to run support that led to a total of 59 tackles in 2015 and the versatility continues with the playmaking corner often lining up as an extra pass rusher on blitzes. Most importantly though is performing very well in man coverage that included 8 pass breakups and an interception as the team’s top cover corner. One area that might receive some attention in interviews is his November 2014 arrest for marijuana possession that led to an indefinite suspension from the team that was ultimately lifted after missing only one game. Outside of that though, even with his small stature Penton has a dynamic versatile game that looks worthy of a draft selection.
Marcell Frazier, Sr, EDGE, #16 – 6ft 5, 265 lbs
No matter how many talents there are at the position, the Tigers always keep a regular rotation going throughout games at edge rusher. Frazier became a part of that rotation last season as a junior college transfer and will continue to play an important role his senior season too in 2016. He’ll be hoping to make more of a consistent impact though. Frazier flashed well at times in his first season playing at the FBS level, showing that he has useful swim and rip moves in his repertoire that he combines with the high motor that appears to be a given for all Missouri defenders. Ultimately though, it amounted to a modest total on the year of 18 tackles, 6 TFLs, 2 sacks, 4 hurries and a force fumble. His chances of earning a draft selection likely will require a step up in those numbers, even taking into account the relative limitations on the number of snaps he’ll receive within the rotation. Frazier also has a tendency to overrun the action too much, taking himself out of the play too far behind in the backfield. If his length at 6ft 5 is correct, then there’s a lot to like about the potential his size and length could provide. However, there seems to be some conflicting listings of how big he is, and at the very least looks much closer to 240 lbs than he does to 265 lbs, looking very skinny and light on film. Regardless of the true weight, he clearly could use some bulking up with room to fill out his frame more.
Michael Scherer, rSr, LB, #30 – 6ft 2, 235 lbs
While there’s no doubt that the departed Kentrell Brothers was the unquestioned leader of not just the linebacker group but of the whole Tigers defense as he led the entire nation in total tackles in 2015, he was far from the only productive member at the position. Scherer didn’t receive close to the same attention, but has piled up 207 tackles of his own over the past two seasons. The third year starter could put up similar numbers to that massive 152 tackle total Brothers had, with more opportunities to be the one making the plays that Brothers will no longer be making. However, despite the fact that he is a very steady and reliable smart player in his own right, Scherer isn’t quite the same playmaker as his former teammate. He certainly plays the run very well, with the vision to read and react to get himself in the right positions to make plays. He is a bit limited athletically though, which in turn limits his effectiveness in the pass game, hurting his draft stock a bit and if he goes undrafted will likely be a factor in that. Scherer finished 2015 with 93 tackles, 9 TFLs, 2 hurries and 3 pass breakups.
OTHER PROSPECTS TO WATCH
Josh Augusta, Sr, DL, #97 – 6ft 4, 344 lbs
I’m not certain what to make of Augusta as a prospect. He’s an absolute load, a huge presence to take up space, something which is an under-rated and under-praised part of the success his flashier teammates have in delivering the big impact plays. He has a role and does it well. Whether he’s a guy to invest a draft pick in, I’m still on the fence. He’s heavy but there’s some poor weight as part of that. Though he takes up space, he’s surprisingly ineffective at times as an actual run stuffer, struggling to get off blocks to make a tackle, leading to an ok if modest 27 tackles last year. His motor is inconsistent. There are a handful of occasions he starts throwing his weight around that helped him toward a pretty impressive 8.5 TFLs, but more often than not his exertions are muted, and wouldn’t say he has a legitimate pass rush threat from the interior. He’s certainly an important part of how this defence operates though.
Sean Culkin, rSr, TE, #80 – 6ft 5, 245 lbs
There’s not the same quality of senior NFL prospects on the offensive side of the ball, but one who might be worth a look is Culkin. With solid size for the position, Culkin has been a useful check down target in the pass game with 36 catches over the last two seasons, though not as a big playmaker averaging just 8.7 yards per reception, and scoring 2 touchdowns in that time. Though he is reportedly working hard on improving in that area, his blocking is poor currently. He’s an average athlete, and probably has a fairly low ceiling to offer, which doesn’t help in what is a strong looking tight end class for the next draft.
Donavin Newsom, rSr, LB, #25 – 6ft 2, 230 lbs
I like the potential for Newsom to build on the productive breakout junior season he had last year, especially if like Scherer before him, he can also take on a bigger role in the absence of Brothers. While his game isn’t overly physical or intense, Newsom is a nice athlete, moving well in space, coping reasonably well when having to cover route runners in the pass game too. His numbers of 63 tackles, 9 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles and 2 pass breakups were good in 2015, and I’d expect even better stats his senior year, especially if he can add a bit more of a physical edge to his play.
Chris Black, rSr, WR, #1 – 5ft 11, 192 lbs
A change of scenery might be just what Black needs. Having joined Alabama as a high recruit with impressive speed in his game, he only managed 25 catches for 290 yards over his 3 seasons with the Tide. Injuries were a big factor in that which led to a redshirt year his first season and last season by an ankle injury. If he can stay healthy in his one and only season with Missouri as a graduate transfer, and provided he still has the speed he possessed before then he could finally prove his playmaking ability. He does seem to prefer to cradle the ball into his body when catching the ball, leading to some questions over how natural his hands are, but Black is at his best once the ball is secure in his hands and he has the space to work in after the catch.
Rickey Hatley, rSr, DL, #95 – 6ft 4, 286 lbs
A solid interior lineman with good length and a decent athlete with some quickness off the snap. His strength isn’t that impressive though which is a concern as to whether he fits as a true defensive tackle at the next level, given his already slightly lighter than ideal build. Hatley earned the first starts of his college career in 2015, with 7 in total, and over the 11 games he participated in he put up 27 tackles, 4.5 TFLs and 1 sack.
John Gibson, rSr, CB, #1 – 5ft 11, 190 lbs
Gibson played in all 12 games in 2015, but mostly as a backup. He saw more action in 2014 than he did last year including 5 starts that season. He’s got something to prove with the likelihood of a bigger role in his final year with the Tigers in 2016. When he has played, Gibson tends to offer a lot of cushion underneath to give up some easy completions, misses a few too many tackles in the run game, and generally just isn’t much of a playmaker. In his limited action last season, he had 12 tackles, a pair of pass breakups and one pick.
JUNIORS TO KEEP AN EYE ON
Natereace Strong, Jr, RB, #? – 6ft 1, 210 lbs
This is an interesting story, with potentially significant consequences depending on how it turns out. Strong is a highly talented back who after originally committing to Missouri previously, had to instead take the junior college route in 2015. He’s now again supposed to join the team but academic eligibility issues have again caused problems. As of right now, he reportedly is eligible to join and play for the Tigers, and if so, he immediately becomes a potential breakout player in the SEC conference. Amid all the confusion, I’m not actually certain if he truly would be considered a junior in order to be listed here, but that’s the info I have for now! He’s a fairly big back with plenty of upside – if he plays!
Nate Brown, Jr, WR, #2 – 6ft 3, 205 lbs
Brown has a lot of promise, and has shown progress from year one to year two – hopefully he’ll continue on that path as a junior, following his 27 catch sophomore season, with those plays going for 326 yards (12.1 average) and 4 touchdowns. While not overly explosion or fast, he moves well enough and has that big frame that he’s learning how to use to his advantage. Expect the touchdown grabs to go up as well, where he’s a good target. Depending on how their quarterback situation unfolds that is, with Drew Lock having plenty of freshman struggles after taking over from Maty Mauk last year.
Nate Crawford, rJr, OG/OT, #55 – 6ft 5, 290 lbs
As well as pass rushers, the Tigers have produced some good NFL offensive line prospects recently. I’m not sold on any of the next crop just yet, but Crawford is intriguing. He has length and despite a fairly light listed weight, looks quite broad and well built on film with some natural power in his game. He has played both right tackle and left guard, but his footwork and kick slide aren’t the smoothest and believe his game is better suited to the interior, where he should see most of his time in 2016.
Anthony Sherrils, rJr, S, #22 – 6ft 0, 190 lbs
Starting all 12 games at strong safety in 2015, his first season as a full time starter, Sherrils may not be the biggest but is certainly a good athlete who is at his best charging downhill into the box from deep. He needs to be a bit smarter and aware when doing so though, too often taking bad angles or having to adjust and back-track into coverage when he’s misread the situation. He totalled 6 pass breakups and an interception last season, but overall his coverage game against the pass is definitely the weaker area of his game, with the run game being where he makes his mark which included 64 tackles last season.
J’Mon Moore, rJr, WR, #6 – 6ft 3, 190 lbs
Another junior wide receiver, Moore has similar length to Brown but at a slighter build overall. The similarities continue in terms of their production, catching a couple more with 29 receptions, but for an identical 12.1 average, and 3 touchdowns for Moore. The question may be which one can separate himself to stand out over the other. Moore did have a shoulder injury that required surgery on it back in 2013, which hopefully doesn’t create any long term concerns.
Alec Abeln, rJr, C #57 – 6ft 3, 290 lbs
Abeln played in 9 games in 2015, starting 3 of those at right guard, before rotating with Crawford at left guard for much of his time that season. He could be in line to find a more consistent role playing at center in 2016, which would probably be the best fit for his relatively smaller size. Overall it’s an inexperienced offensive line that Missouri will be deploying, with Abeln and Crawford the most tenured of the group. Abeln does have a reliable game with sound technique that will be much needed as the starters try and gel quickly.
Thomas Wilson, Jr, S, #8 – 5ft 10, 190 lbs
Wilson is an undersized safety who has mostly played on special teams but is an impressive athlete with explosion and a fearless game, and will be hoping for a breakout campaign this year. In a reserve role, he has managed to total 31 tackles, 1.5 TFLs and 1 pass break up over his two seasons so far.