With the ensuing matchup of UConn and Missouri on Saturday, I did a short Q&A with Alec Lewis, an assistant sports editor at The Maneater – Missouri’s student newspaper – about the Tigers this season.
Here is what he had to say about the Tigers:
Zampini: Missouri has produced the last two SEC defensive players of the year in Michael Sam and Shane Ray. Who anchors the defense for the Tigers this year?
Lewis: This is an easy answer: the leading tackler in college football, Kentrell Brothers. Brothers is a fifth-year senior that Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel says "feels like he's been here for 10 years." In losing Sam and Ray, Markus Golden (now a Chiefs linebacker) and in losing Harold Brantley — the supposed next in line to those players — to car injuries that have him out for the year, people doubted. But, I guess that's why some call it D-line Zou. Players seem to plug the gaps year in and year out, so yeah, I'd say it's Brothers.
Zampini: How big of a loss is Russell Hansbrough for this week?
Lewis: It's big. And to add that Ish Witter, the backup, suffered an injury in the game against Arkansas State this past week, it hurts worse. I'd venture to say that this is the biggest problem right now for Mizzou and in terms of them hoping to not just beat UConn, but get back to the SEC Championship, it's critical that they have him back.
Zampini: Who is the Tigers' best offensive weapon?
Lewis: Piggy-backing off of the Hansbrough question, this is the problem. Who do you go to when you need short yards? What do you do if you need a big play? In the past, with receivers like Bud Sasser, Doriel Green-Beckham and even Jeremy Maclin, that's been the safety net. Get it to one of those guys and chances are a big play would come. But this year's different.
The receivers at the top of the depth chart are sophomores: Nate Brown and J'Mon Moore. Both are athletic, rangy and quick, but neither are sharp enough to be real forces. So, to be honest, I'd say it is Maty Mauk at quarterback. Against Arkansas State last week, he ran for 75 yards and threw two touchdowns. He's erratic at times but he's versatile, and without his ability to extend plays, Mizzou might be in real serious trouble even against UConn without Hansbrough.
Another two to watch are Sean Culkin, the redshirt junior tight end, and Drew Lock, the freshman quarterback. Culkin emerged last week as a big target and he'll have to be that in the passing game. Lock will most likely get a series in the second quarter. He's a true freshman Missouri native that has been incredibly hyped, so it'll be interesting to see what he can do against UConn's 33rd-ranked pass defense.
Zampini: Which Missouri player has the best chance of playing in the NFL?
Lewis: Another good question that can be steered many ways. The highest draft pick that'll come off of this roster will most likely be freshman defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr., who was the second best player in the nation coming out of high school. He's a big, bulky and explosive presence who's been projected to be an almost surefire top-10 pick, and he'll co-start on Saturday.
Other guys that'll almost certainly make the league are center Evan Boehm, cornerback Kenya Dennis and Brothers — all seniors.
Zampini: What is Missouri's biggest strength? And weakness?
Lewis: Biggest strength has to be the defense. Ranking sixth in the country in only allowing 209 yards-per-game, there's no question. Year after year, the defense has been exceptional and the offense has been good enough, just good enough. With Brothers at linebacker and Dennis at cornerback, there's really no doubt about it.
And the weakness would be the running game. Without Hansbrough it's going to be difficult to generate any kind of serious production in that area. But without Witter? They're left with Tyler Hunt and Morgan Steward, two inexperienced backs without the agility and burst that's necessary in SEC play.
Zampini: What is your prediction for this game?
Lewis: Well, considering it's at Faurot Field, it's parents' weekend and the fact that it's going to be a Tiger Stripe game (with black and gold sections), I think it's fair to say that Missouri is the overwhelming favorite. Vegas says 22 points, which I don't agree with, though, I think it'll be a little closer. I'll go 31-14.