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January 5, 2010

Mizzou has off-season questions to answer

The last impression the Missouri Tigers left on their fans was not good. But overall, Missouri won eight games and exceeded the pre-season expectations of many fans and experts. Going into the off-season, PowerMizzou.com has identified the questions that Missouri must answer moving forward.

Was the Texas Bowl just a bad day at the office for Blaine Gabbert?

For all the other issues in the 35-13 loss to Navy, perhaps the most disconcerting for Tiger fans was the play of the sophomore quarterback. Gabbert had thrown for more than 3,300 yards entering the bowl game and had played very well since a mid-season three-game losing streak. But nearly from the opening snap, Gabbert struggled against Navy's defense which was focused on blanketing his receivers and confusing him. After starting 4-for-5 for 88 yards and a touchdown, Gabbert went 11-for-26 for 203 and two interceptions from that point on. He missed open receivers and tried too often to force the ball to Danario Alexander. In addition, he lost 24 yards rushing including sacks. Was the game just an off day or was it a sign that perhaps the late-season progress had as much to do with facing inferior competition as it did with Gabbert's improvement? Spring ball may be bigger for no single individual.

Speaking of Alexander, who replaces that guy?

Missouri completed 274 passes on the season. Alexander caught 107 of them (and threw another). That is 39% of the receptions to a single player. He also had 44% of the team's receiving yards and half of its touchdown catches. Add in what Jared Perry did and departing seniors caught 56% of the team's completions, had 63% of the receiving yards and combined for 19 of the 26 touchdown catches. As much as Missouri had to replace when Maclin, Coffman and Saunders left after 2007, they have to replace at least as much this year. Coming into this season, Alexander and Perry had combined for 187 catches, 2,145 yards and 15 touchdowns. Missouri's leading returning receiver is Jerrell Jackson, who has 46 catches for 596 yards and two scores. Derrick Washington is the only Tiger who has as many as 30 career catches.

Does the run game take on a bigger role?

Let's get the numbers out of the way: Yes, Missouri ran the ball on nearly 50% of its total snaps this season. But at various times throughout the year (Oklahoma State and Navy stand out), the Tigers put the game pretty much entirely on the passing attack. The coaches had said they wouldn't load too much on Gabbert's plate, but by the end of the year, he had as much responsibility for the Tigers winning or losing as Chase Daniel ever did. Gary Pinkel said throughout spring and fall that Washington and De'Vion Moore were the best 1-2 punch he'd ever had at tailback. Moore missed two games with an injury, but averaged just more than five carries per game when he did play. Kendial Lawrence looked very good at times, but had only 51 carries and more than half of those came during the non-conference season. If the running backs are as good as the coaches have said they are-particularly in looking at what the Tigers lack in experience at receiver-they have to be a bigger part of the offense next season.

Is the defensive scheme broken?

I'm no expert on X's and O's and I haven't broken down the film throughout the season. But the fact is, Missouri's defense wasn't much better than a season ago and got progressively worse throughout the year. Mizzou allowed more than 1,000 yards in its final two games. Sean Weatherspoon will be the third Tiger drafted on defense in the last two seasons and still Missouri's defense has been shredded frequently over the last two seasons. Missouri has given up 28 points or more 11 times in two years. The Tigers were 104th or worse against the pass in each of the last two seasons. Something has to change. Figuring out what that is will be job number one for the staff between now and spring football.

What happens at defensive tackle?

The defensive ends were as good as the Tigers have had. Aldon Smith set the single-season sack record and Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith were productive as well. But Missouri got just 2.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss from its starting defensive tackles. Jaron Baston is gone while Dominique Hamilton (the most productive DT) returns. Hamilton will start, but who plays next to him? Terrell Resonno lost the starting job to Hamilton this season and no other defensive tackle on the roster made a single tackle on the season.

Is there a shakeup in the secondary?

Missouri returns all four starters in the secondary, plus the top four backups at corner and the top reserve at safety. Of course, this is off a pass defense that ranked 104th in the country. Missouri had only five interceptions all season from players that will return next year. A better pass rush would help, but Missouri was one of the easiest teams in America to pass on for a second straight season. Experience is all well and good, but every job in the defensive backfield should be open.

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