Gary Pinkel has been quoting his mentor, Don James, since the day he arrived at Missouri almost 10 years ago, and the Tigers head coach didn't miss another opportunity to reference his former boss at the University of Washington after a sluggish offensive show in MU's spring game.
"Coach James always said if you're worrying about your defense after the spring game, then you've got problems in the summer," Pinkel said after watching his first-team defense mostly manhandle the No. 2 offensive unit.
If the spring was an accurate sneak preview of the team Missouri team that faces Illinois on Sept. 4, then Pinkel won't have to worry about the defensive problems that plagued his team the last two seasons, particularly the struggles MU suffered trying to defend the pass. But looks can be deceiving in the spring, and any assessment of MU's shutdown defense is countered by the reality that a true freshman quarterback, early enrolled James Franklin, was running the No. 2 offense.
Still, Pinkel saw enough from a defense that loses only two full-time starters to know the standard should be high this fall.
"I think there is a lot of things that need to take place between now and kickoff against Illinois," he said, "but I think we've got the makings of a very good football team. We've got to keep going, we've got a good freshman class coming in. There is still a lot of competition. I told them we set the depth going into August for our first practice, but when we start that first practice, all the jobs are open again and it's all based on competition. I think there's a lot of things in place."
Offensively, the spring was more of a get-to-know-you session for returning quarterback Blaine Gabbert, some newly promoted receivers and tight ends and a couple young but promising offensive linemen. Fully recovered from the sprained ankle that temporarily capsized Missouri's offense midway through last season, Gabbert showed flashes of his big-play potential during the spring -- though he completed just 49 percent of his passes in five scrimmages and threw just two touchdowns to two interceptions.
If the Tigers can challenge defensive-minded Nebraska in the Big 12 North Division, Gabbert must be more productive in the fall, though a stifling defense will take considerable pressure off Gabbert and MU's usually prolific offense.NOTES, QUOTES
--Missouri's cornerbacks fully embraced the more aggressive coverage philosophy adopted by coordinator Dave Steckel and cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford. Nobody exploited the opportunities to play press-man coverage like cornerback Kevin Rutland, who intercepted four passes in five scrimmages. MU has been among the worst pass defenses in the country the last two seasons, and the staff hopes a new mix of coverages on third downs and in the red zone will be the difference.
--Three freshmen enrolled a semester early this year and at least two made a push for playing time this fall with impressive spring performances, quarterback James Franklin and tight end Eric Waters. After four weeks of practices, Franklin had already moved into the No. 2 slot behind starter Blaine Gabbert, though Pinkel has said the competition for the backup job will last through preseason camp in August.
G Justin Britt -- The redshirt freshman played both guard positions at times during the spring and seemed to have earned a spot in the game-day rotation, if not a starting job. Converted from left tackle after the season, Britt could fill the hole vacated by departed senior Kurtis Gregory at right guard or hold off returning starter Austin Wuebbels on the left side. The coaches named Britt the team's most improved offensive lineman.
DE Brad Madison -- Madison was plugged into the starting lineup for the spring game when returning starter Jacquies Smith suffered a high ankle sprain the week before. Then the redshirt sophomore played like he belonged with the starters, finishing with a sack and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown. Madison, voted the team's most improved defensive lineman, had three sacks in five scrimmages and should have cemented his place as the team's first defensive end off the bench.
SS Matt White -- The redshirt freshman might be the smallest position player with a legitimate chance to start this fall. Over the last three weeks of practices, White surged up the depth chart and moved ahead of two veterans, former starters Kenji Jackson and Jerrell Harrison. Considered one of the teams' smartest young defenders, White makes up for his small frame by getting into position to make plays in the secondary.
WR T.J. Moe -- A former prolific prep quarterback, the sophomore emerged as MU's most productive receiver over the course of his first spring in Columbia. Playing the slot position with both the Nos. 1 and 2 offenses, Moe caught a team-high 27 passes in five scrimmages, going for 163 yards. He was by far the most active pass-catcher in the spring game, posting team high figures with 12 catches for 85 yards. Moe might not initially earn a starting job over Jerrell Jackson, but he'll certainly play a significant role in MU's receiver rotation.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "He throws a real catchable ball. He throws a real nice tight spiral that's soft when it hits your hands. That's the thing I really enjoy about James. And he's such a nice kid. He'll come up to you on the sideline and say, 'Oh, it's my fault,' even if he hits you right in the hands and you dropped it. He's the nicest kid on the team, and one of those guys you really like to be around." -- WR T.J. Moe on freshman QB James Franklin.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Few probably expect Missouri to win a third Big 12 North Division title in four years, but one of the youngest rosters in the country last season should become a more seasoned, more mature team this fall. The Tigers must replace two all-conference playmakers on both sides of the ball, wideout Danario Alexander and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, but the bulk of the team that went 8-5 last season returns with hopes of surprising North favorite Nebraska.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Missouri's offense will rely on more balanced distribution in the passing game, but quarterback Blaine Gabbert must continue to improve his accuracy and leadership as his receiving corps takes shape. Tight end Michael Egnew has just seven career receptions, but physically he compares to former All-Americans Alexander and Martin Rucker, players who flourished as bigger slot receivers in MU's system. The running game was sluggish during stretches of 2009, but a lighter, quicker Derrick Washington could be the answer to those problems of the past. The offensive line loses just one starter and looks to infuse two promising underclassmen in Jack Meiners and Justin Britt, players who can line up at guard or tackle.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: With two senior corners expected to resume their starting roles, Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis, a more aggressive style of play in the secondary could be crucial. Though the strength of this group remains pass-rushing specialist Aldon Smith and a deep, flexible pack of linebackers. With the return of middle linebacker Luke Lambert from shoulder surgery, the coaches believe they have four players capable of starting at linebacker, including outside starters Andrew Gachkar and Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner in the middle. MU must generate a pass rush from somewhere other than Smith, who racked up a school-record 11 1/2 sacks last season.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Grant Ressel, the NCAA's most accurate kicker, returns after a breakthrough 2009 season in which he missed only one field goal attempt on 27 attempts. The Tigers have targeted Trey Barrow to replace trusty punter Jake Harry, who excelled at the rugby-style punt. Safety Jasper Simmons is the leading candidate to once again return kickoffs, though receiver T.J. Moe is closing in on cornerback Carl Gettis for the No. 1 punt return duties.
S Kenronte Walker -- The midyear addition to the secondary could be the second safety from City College of San Francisco to become an instant contributor for the Tigers, following the path of Jarrell Harrison, who become MU's starting strong safety midway through last season.
WR Marcus Lucas -- A 6-4 prep phenom from the Kansas City area, Lucas figures to compete immediately for a job at MU's outside receiver positions.
OL Nick Demien -- For more than a decade Missouri has built its offensive line around continuity at the center position. Demien, a rugged left tackle at the prep level, could come in and conceivably become the successor to three-year starting center Tim Barnes.
--Two veteran offensive players are expected to be fully recovered from offseason shoulder surgeries by the time preseason practices begin in August. Left tackle Elvis Fisher and tight end Andrew Jones both suffered torn labrums last year then spent the entire spring watching practice from the sideline. Fisher should slide back into his spot as Gabbert's blind-side protection, but Jones will have to hold off Egnew for the No. 1 tight end job.
--Defensive tackle Marvin Foster also missed all spring drills after tearing his pectoral muscle while lifting weights in February. He's expected to recover in time to take part in preseason practices. Also, backup wideout Brandon Gerau gradually returned to more drills during the spring after undergoing surgery to repair a broken foot.
--With a smaller amount of scholarships to dispense for 2011, MU entered April in good shape with seven verbal commitments for next year's recruiting class, including pledges from four in-state high school stars. The Tigers have secured commitments from in-state Lee's Summit, Mo., quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, Columbia, Mo., wideout Wesley Leftwich, St. Louis tight end/receiver Brandon Hannah and St. Louis tailback/cornerback Anthony Pierson.
--Strong safety Jarrell Harrison started eight games last season, but after missing one spring practice for undisclosed "personal reasons," the former junior college transfer was dropped down to the No. 3 defense. Harrison ended the spring with an interception in the final scrimmage but must eclipse Matt White and Kenji Jackson on the depth chart to resume his starting role of last season.
Previous Report: 04/11/2010