COLUMBIA — If three years of football have flown by for Evan Boehm, this past offseason vanished in the blink of an eye.
“We were definitely joking around when we got out here that we felt like we just got back from Orlando a couple days ago,” said Boehm, Missouri’s junior center. “That’s how fast it’s been.”
Two and a half months after the Tigers’ win at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl, college football is back. Missouri had its first formal spring practice Tuesday afternoon in a sun-soaked Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers will practice seven more times before their first scrimmage April 3. The Black and Gold scrimmage, which is open to the public, is set for April 18.
For Boehm, a leader in last season’s 11-3 campaign and a likely captain for the upcoming year, 2015 marks his final year of spring football. He said he still feels like a freshman at times.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “Now we’re the older guys trying to teach everybody everything.”
Missouri’s first spring depth chart has nine rising seniors slotted in starting roles, including four on the offensive line. Tailback Russell Hansbrough will carry the ball behind them.
Coach Gary Pinkel will try to replace the 924 rushing yards and four touchdowns of graduated ballcarrier Marcus Murphy with a combination of three running backs, he said. Hansbrough will lead that group, but rising sophomore Ish Witter will also get some carries.
“We’ve got plenty of running backs,” Hansbrough said. “We’re all different shapes and sizes, but we’re pretty much as good as the one that’s in front of us. He’s (Murphy) pretty easy to replace even though he did do a lot of the special teams.”
Defensive backs John Gibson and Anthony Sherrils are slotted to replace Murphy in the return game, where he was lethal in 2014, returning three kicks for scores.
Kenya Dennis anchors the defensive backfield at cornerback, where’s he’s flanked by Gibson and rising junior Aarion Penton. Rising senior Ian Simon is set to start at safety.
The four make up a unit that was once considered a liability for the Tigers when they entered the Southeastern Conference, a league known for defense.
“We try not to look at the bad years we’ve had,” Dennis said, who wasn’t even a member of the team in 2012 when Missouri opponents averaged 240 passing yards per game against the Tigers. “We try to keep everything going forward.”
After the secondary grabbed seven interceptions during a six-game winning streak to end the regular season, Dennis said the unit is poised to break out after years of being underestimated.
“I think it was just us getting more reps and focusing up more at the end of the season. As we saw more, we got better,” he said. “This group has worked hard enough to be where we are, to be one of the top secondaries in the country.”
New defensive coordinator Barry Odom, hired to replace Dave Steckel during the offseason, will take over the defense, one that ranked eighth in points allowed in the SEC a year ago.
Steckel left to take the head coaching job at Missouri State. Pinkel lured Odom, a Missouri alum, away from Memphis, where he held the same position. He brought with him Ryan Walters as the Tigers’ new safeties coach.
“The adjustment has been easy, like I thought it would be,” Pinkel said.
Last year’s defense lost its two premier pass rushers — Shane Ray and Markus Golden — in the offseason. Ray is projected to be a first round NFL draft pick. Golden, who graduated, is projected to be a fourth or fifth round pick.
Defensive tackles Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta, both rising juniors, will solidify the interior of the line, Hansbrough said.
Pinkel said he expects ends Charles Harris and Marcus Loud to be successful pass rushers. Terry Beckner Jr., the No. 2 overall recruit in the nation, could also contribute on the defensive line.
“We’ve got a little more experience in the middle,” Pinkel said, “but I expect those other guys too — Harris and Loud and couple of the other guys — to play at a different level just because they’re stronger, they’re faster, quicker and they’re more mature. It’s exciting to see that, too.”
Supervising editor is Wade Livingston.