Spring Break has interrupted Spring Football, and with nine of fifteen spring practices in the book, it's time to take a look at what we've seen during the early portion of spring ball.
The defensive line appears to have absorbed the loss of Aldon Smith's early departure without missing a beat. Brad Madison has been as much the star of spring football as anyone on the team, and Kony Ealy has jumped up onto the second unit, and appears to be the Tigers' third DE, behind Madison, and Jacquies Smith. Smith is playing the best football of his career, and has taken over a leadership role. There's even more quality depth behind those three DEs, in Brayden Burnett, Michael Sam, and Matt Hoch.
Terrell Resonno has taken charge in the middle, and in the absence of Dominique Hamilton, Marvin Foster has moved up to temporarily take over a starting spot. Hamilton is expected to return to the field when Spring Practice resumes, after the break. Lucas Vincent has played very well this spring, and has moved up onto the second unit. Vincent is improving rapidly, and he is establishing himself in the competition for playing time this year. Once fall camp arrives, I think we'll see Vincent move over onto the nose, where he'll be playing behind Hamilton.
Barring injuries, this defensive line should be better than last year's, and could be much better. There's still work to be done by everyone, but this spring, it looks like things are going well for Coach Kuligowski's crew.
There's two themes this spring regarding the LB position. First, of course, is the continued absence of injured LBs, Luke Lambert, Will Ebner, and Donovan Bonner. It's not clear whether any of those three will make it back for any of spring ball. In their absence, some younger players have joined in the competition for the opportunity to play alongside of Zaviar Gooden. Andrew Wilson has looked very good in the middle, and has registered more big hits than anyone on the field this spring. During scrimmages, the Tigers have played almost exclusively in the nickel, with just two LBs. During segments involving three LBs, Darvin Ruise, and as of late, Jared Parham, have taken most of the first-team reps at the SLB spot. Ruise is Gooden's back-up, on the weak side, and is joined in the second-team nickel package by Tony Randolph. With three injured backers set to return before fall camp, and three incoming freshmen LBs set to arrive in June,
Coach Steckel will have plenty of capable players this fall.
I expect Ruise to lay claim to some serious playing time by the close of fall camp. It appears to me that he's just too talented for him not to be a major factor.
Kenji Jackson has really asserted his leadership this spring, especially in the secondary, where he's the lone returning starter. His work ethic, and continual improvement, provide a quality visual aide for the younger guys. Tavon Bolden and Matt White are right in the hunt for the other starting safety spot, as well as for considerable playing time this fall. In addition, Kenronte Walker, Braylon Webb, and Daniel Easterly have each thrown their hats into the ring for playing time this year. Easterly has shown a nose for the football, but it's Webb who has been making the biggest impression. He's shown real good mobility, as well as being real physical. It's too close to call, but I think Webb will make a move, and see the field at safety this fall. Like Ruise, he's just too talented to be kept on the sidelines.
A pair of veteran corners, Robert Steeples and Trey Hobson, have played well this spring, behind Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines. But, by the middle of August, I expect to see that Tristen Holt will have moved up onto the two-deep. Holt's another one who is just too talented to remain on the sidelines. He's as talented as any of Missouri's corners, but he missed the first scrimmage of the spring with a minor injury, so he has some catching up to do.
The specialists have performed well this spring. Trey Barrow has excelled as the punter, and is developing into a quality place-kicker, behind Grant Ressel.
Several returners have fielded both punts and kick-offs this spring. Gaines has looked good in both capacities, as has Marcus Murphy.
There's great competition all over the field, and no starting position is being more closely contested than at the QB position. Following the first scrimmage, in which he outperformed the top two QBs, Tyler Gabbert shot up the depth chart, and grabbed a co-starter's role, alongside of James Franklin, who had entered the spring as the number one QB. Gabbert had better numbers in the half-scrimmage last Thursday, but I thought that Franklin had the better overall performance on that day.
What is clear to this point, is that Gabbert has inserted himself into the competition for the starting job, and that he and Franklin have distanced themselves from the number three QB in this competition, Ashton Glaser. It's also pretty clear that the competition between Gabbert and Franklin is close, and that it will likely continue into the fall.
Each of the top two QBs brings somewhat different strengths to the competition. Gabbert is more nimble than his older brother, Blaine, and has a strong arm, and a quick release. He has been getting rid of the football quickly, and completing a lot of short passes, many near the line of scrimmage, which result in a high completion percentage, and produces some big plays. Franklin is a strong runner, which is something of a non-factor during spring practice, since there's not much of a willingness by the staff to expose one of their top QBs to the risk of injury. Franklin also has a strong, accurate arm, and is also very good on the short throws. Franklin does a better job of standing in the pocket, in the face of a rush, and I've seen him complete passes down field to his second, and third, receiving options. Franklin moves the chains. There's another aspect that I've observed that gives Franklin an edge over Gabbert. The running game
involving the TBs seems to function more efficiently under Franklin. I think it has something to do with the respect that Franklin demands from the defense on run-option plays, that opens things up for the TBs.
I also think that grading the QBs, and separating the play of the top two QBs, is further complicated for the coaching staff by the problems experienced early on with the center-QB exchange. In the first scrimmage, Franklin and the other QBs seemed to be chasing an errant snap on almost every other play. The snaps were much improved during Thursday's half-scrimmage.
Coming into spring ball, the focus up front was the identification of the starting, and the back-up, center. Errant snaps plagued both center candidates early on, and that has brought about a position switch between Justin Britt, who is now working exclusively at guard, and Mitch Morse, who is doing a good job of snapping the ball, as the second-string center, behind Travis Ruth. Morse continues to improve, and appears to have found a home at the center position. Ruth will have to resolve his own snapping issues, if he is to retain his starting job.
Jack Meiners has filled in for the injured Elvis Fisher at left tackle this spring. A couple of young tackles, who have been working with the second unit, Anthony Gatti and Chris Freeman, have narrowed the distance between themselves and Meiners, and are showing rapid improvement.
Austin Wuebbels has been excellent this spring, a carry-over from his performance last fall. The Tigers have five quality guard/centers, leaving room on the two-deep for one interior offensive lineman. The current leading candidates for that final spot are Mark Hill and Nick Demien.
With more than a dozen candidates for playing time at the WR position this season, the competition this spring has been closely contested among a crowded field of talented players. I've expected more early movement in the depth chart than what has occurred thus far, as I've observed several young players perform at a pretty high level. Heading into the final pre-break half-scrimmage, the only observable movement in the depth chart had been the elevation of L'Damian Washington onto the second unit, ahead of the inconsistent Rolandis Woodland.
Bud Sasser has been the best receiver in camp not named T.J. Moe. After those two, the status of the competition becomes more muddled. That leaves four spots on the two-deep that are up for grabs. I see eight WRs who are realistically competing for those four spots. That number includes, in no particular order, returning starters, Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp, Washington, Woodland, Gahn McGaffie, Jimmie Hunt, Marcus Lucas, and Brandon Gerau.
Jackson has had his moments this spring, but continues to drop passes, especially on over-the-middle routes, or when he's in traffic. Kemp spent most of the early portion of spring ball nursing an injury, and has shown very good run-after-catch ability on the shorter throws, but is still inconsistent catching the longer passes.
Washington has played well, and has moved up, and Woodland has shown flashes of brilliance, along with being inconsistent catching the football. McGaffie has been very consistent catching the football, and hasn't done anything to hurt his stock. The normally glue-handed Gerau hasn't had a good spring.
Surprisingly, he's dropped a number of passes. Lucas appears to be significantly improved this spring, and has been getting increased reps with the second, and the first, units. Hunt is a virtual highlight reel, with his daily eye-popping catches, and his amazing athleticism. But, although Hunt has been taking more reps with the second and third team offense, he was still listed on the fourth unit, just prior to the break. Hunt makes catches that no one else makes, but he also drops some balls that he should be catching. He's the closest thing to a home-run hitter among Missouri's WRs, but needs to improve his practice habits, and develop a
little bit more of a workman-like approach.
ShowMeMizzou.com will continue to follow all of the action, when spring ball resumes, and will continue to provide first-hand reports and analysis.