Practice report: August 10th

The Tigers returned to the field for their second practice of the fall Tuesday afternoon and InsideMizzou was there. Check inside for an update on the offense and a look at the developing special teams unit.

Practice is the time to adapt, to improve, and to grow as an athlete. Players get the chance to put what they have heard from coaches all spring and summer to work on the field.

For players entering their second year in the program, it is also a chance for those ideas to click, to grasp concepts for the first time.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he is seeing that process occur on the offensive line, where he has two redshirt freshmen at the top of the depth chart. C Adam Spieker would snap the ball to junior QB Brad Smith if the season started tomorrow, and T Tyler Luellen would be responsible for protecting Smith's blind side.

It may be a tall order to expect two redshirts to start without having seen a snap in their collegiate careers, but Pinkel said Tuesday that he could see growth already.

"I see a little bit of maturity," he said. "In the spring, (for) Adam Spieker, the ball was all over the ground the first three or four practices. I haven't seen that happen once…

"It'll probably happen the first play tomorrow since I mentioned it."

Ironic twists of fate aside, Spieker and Luellen have not looked out of place with the top offensive line unit. Spieker has yet to be overpowered by an opposing lineman in practice, while Luellen has played a consistent tackle through both days of drills. Despite their need to replace Rob Droege and A.J. Ricker, two of Missouri's most consistent offensive linemen, Spieker and Luellen are exhibiting the progression Pinkel expects to see as players enter their second year in the program. They are just now gaining the ability to prove themselves at this level.

"All of our first-year players, after they get through spring football and they go into these first two-a-days, those players will have the biggest improvement," Pinkel said. "Last year, they didn't learn much. They went though all spring and learned an awful lot, a little paralysis by analysis. Now they're hearing it all over again and now they get a little more comfortable. They think a lot less and they react a lot more."

Reacting without having to think is vital for offensive linemen; Spieker and Luellen have shown that ability through spring and into the fall. They are key cogs in what will most likely be a strong running attack and what the coaching staff hopes will become a more potent passing unit.

Through the first two days of practice, the quarterbacks have seemed reluctant to pass downfield, with the exception of second-stringer Brandon Coleman. His willingness to go deep has led to some of the biggest plays of practice, while the downfield forays of the other quarterbacks often ended in disaster.

Smith threw deep balls on consecutive attempts in a seven-on-seven drill Tuesday. The first pass was slightly underthrown; senior WR Thomson Omboga had to slow down and turn around to attempt to make a play on the ball. He deflected it up in the air, resulting in an easy interception for senior CB A.J. Kincade.

On his next throw, about a minute later, Smith looked to Omboga again. He overcompensated, throwing the ball a good seven yards over his receiver's head.

The passing game is continuing to evolve, as the coaching staff introduces more and more sets to the players. Pinkel said he expects the younger players to struggle through the first week or so.

"We're going real fast, especially for those young quarterbacks and receivers," he said. "We put things in fast on offense."

Smith has focused on his short passing game, often finding a tight end or tailback on a check-down. Senior TE Victor Sesay was the beneficiary of that Tuesday, when he caught several Smith passes, showing off good hands in the process.

Pinkel said he hopes to make that a trend this season.

"I think (Sesay) did a good job, without question," he said. "I'd like to get a tight end involved much more in the passing game. I think we can; we have some athletes there."

Athletic, but inexperienced: Already lauded as one of the top linebacker units in the Big 12, the starting Tiger threesome is composed of one experienced senior and two sophomores that have not played a single snap at the position. Senior James Kinney has proved to be reliable, and sophomore Dedrick Harrington was strong as a safety last season before moving to middle linebacker this year. Sophomore David Richard enters the spring without any experience at the position at the college level.

Pinkel said he viewed Richard as a linebacker in high school, despite his playing tailback as a freshman at Michigan State. When Richard chose to transfer, the position decision was his. Pinkel said he did not want to force a position change on any of his current players. "The only time I ever moved players around was the first year I got here," he said. "I told players they had to move, because, shoot, we had so many problems and I wasn't in the mood to hear their opinions. Now, since our program's established, players will get to stay where they want."

It's their specialty: The leading candidates for the open spots on special teams are beginning to take shape. Sophomore K Alex Pettersen, the sole scholarship player of the group, faced freshman Adam Crossett and walk-ons Scott Russell and Joe Tantarelli in a friendly kicking competition before practice started Tuesday. Pettersen mainly attempted kicks in the 30-yard range, making about half of them. Tantarelli and Crossett attempted longer tries, with Tantarelli having the most impressive leg, easily making kicks of up to 48 yards. He was not very consistent in his attempts, but he clearly had the strongest leg. Crossett had the deepest kicks in the few kick-offs he attempted during practice, routinely reaching the end zone.

Four players returned those kick-offs: senior CB Shirdonya Mitchell and freshman TB Marcus Woods were the top pair, with Woods flashing an impressive quickness. Freshman CB Alex Woodley and freshman WR Greg Bracey were the other pair. Bracey's ability to reach the sideline quickly and cut upfield was noticeable.

Mitchell, Woodley, Woods, and Omboga handled the punt return duties.

Three players appear to be in contention to replace QB Sonny Riccio as the placeholder. Smith, Coleman and sophomore WR Brad Ekwerekwu took turns preparing the ball for the kickers.

Happy and healthy: Besides freshman T Kyle Riggs, who had shoulder surgery and has yet to report to camp, the Tigers are completely healthy. All bumps and bruises that accumulated during spring practice have subsided, and all newcomers that underwent surgery have already returned to full strength.

Catch of the day: Freshman WR Jason Ray made a leaping, turn-around catch of a slightly overthrown Coleman pass in the seven-on-seven drill. He then split the defense and scored a "touchdown," one of the few deep plays the offense completed Tuesday.

Hit of the day: Struggling to show consistency in his field goal attempts, Pettersen rattled several off the uprights, including one that hit the bar near the top and rattled through, to the semi-sarcastic cheers of his teammates.

Quote of the day: "I call this ‘getting dirty a little bit,' part of what a quarterback has to do. A lot of times, that's the only way you're going to grow. In the long run, as you learn to battle through that, it develops your character and mental toughness that you need to play the position."

--Pinkel, on the early, but expected struggles of freshman QBs Chase Patton, Darrell Jackson and Mack Breed. Audibles: Position coach Bruce Walker singled out freshman TE Josh Barbo as having the ideal blocking stance during a drill Tuesday. His ability to run block may earn him playing time this season.

Quick hits: Freshman TE Martin Rucker is noticeably quick, and that is especially impressive for a player his size (6-5, 240). … Woods seems to disappear behind the offensive line in rushing drills. His 5-foot-8 stature and quickness will make him an invaluable weapon down the road. … This definitely is not news, but sophomore DE Brian Smith is fast. He flies past slower defensive line mates in the unit's circle drills.

Looking ahead: The team will continue practice at 3:45 p.m. the next two days. Friday's practice has been moved up to 8:15 a.m., in anticipation of two-a-days beginning Saturday.

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