Two-a-days, along with full pads, change all of that. The Tigers practiced in full pads for the first time Friday and began the rigorous demands of two-a-days Saturday. Each practice gives the coaching staff more and more information on the linemen; the defensive line, the more unique group, is composed of several big run stoppers and a remarkably nimble end.
Quite simply, shutting down the run begins here. The frustrating ineffectiveness of the run defense sank the Tigers in their two biggest games of last season, at Kansas State and against Arkansas in the Independence Bowl. The Tigers allowed a stunning 667 rushing yards combined in those two games, both disappointing losses that Missouri felt it had a chance to win.
Along with the change to the 4-3 base defense, an improvement by Missouri's experienced defensive tackles have the ability to rectify those mistakes. Senior Atiyyah Ellison and junior C.J. Mosley bring 605 pounds of beef to the table, but have not thrown it around much in the first week of practice. The pair have fared well in the inside run drills, often stifling the opposing running back. But in the 11-on-11 drill, their effectiveness drops dramatically.
They have rarely been able to outmuscle the first team offensive line and the few runs against them in 11-on-11 (a very small sample) have generally been successful. Ellison and Mosley have the quickness to dominate the middle of the field and force opposing offenses to change their play-calling, but, to this point in practice, they have not show that ability.
Junior college transfer George Lane has not made the splash many expected him to make. Again, the nature of practice makes it difficult for a defensive tackle to shine, but Lane has made very few plays thus far. Lane is listed at 275 pounds, but he looks to be more than that. His agility does not match that of Ellison and Mosley.
Sophomore Fabian Bean looks much more comfortable at the defensive end spot. Having bulked up to 290 pounds, he will not often be pushed around. He does not have the speed to play end and most likely does not have the quickness to be an impact tackle, but he should prove an adequate reserve. Senior Phil Pitts, the line's most experienced player, should also be a reliable backup.
The depth of the defensive end corps is impressive, so much so that last year's sack leader--sophomore Brian Smith, who dragged down the quarterback eight times--is on the second team. While Smith is quick and incredibly athletic, sophomore Xzavie Jackson and senior Zach Ville have a combination of speed and strength that allows them to slow both the run and the pass.
As a senior, Ville appears to be nearly guaranteed a starting spot. The rotation of Jackson and Smith will be important to watch as two-a-days continue. Smith, at just 225 pounds, cannot be expected to provide consistent run defense, all but eliminating any chance of playing every down. But he provides a unique flexibility to the offense.
In Saturday afternoon's scrimmage, Smith often presented himself as an up man, with senior LB James Kinney being the fourth man on the line. Smith dropped into zone coverage on two separate occasions. On the first play, a run to the opposite side of the field, Smith beat Kinney and sophomore LB Dedrick Harrington to the ball carrier.
On the second, which developed into a short passing play over the middle, Smith broke on the pass and deflected it up into the air. He, along with several other defenders, had a chance at the interception, but it clanged to the ground incomplete. Smith's ability to present this wrinkle has the potential to make opposing offensive coordinators wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
The development of the defensive line will be vital to the Tigers' success this season. It will be more apparent once the Tigers scrimmage next weekend, but InsideMizzou will continue to keep tabs on them until then. The offensive line, with a unique blend of experience and youth, will be explored tomorrow.
Coffey sidelined: Junior WR Sean Coffey, who had turned in the receiving corps' strongest performance through the first five days of practice, sat out Saturday. Coffey suffered a slight, "grade one" separation of his right shoulder. Coach Gary Pinkel expects Coffey to return "within a week or so."
Junior WR Chris Crosby sat out the morning session, the third in a row he missed, with a sore hamstring. He participated in a few of the non-contact passing drills Saturday afternoon.
In the morning, Coffey was joined by freshman TB Earl Goldsmith, who injured his left thigh in practice Friday, and freshman LB Van Alexander. Instead of practice, those three were rewarded with a chance to run the Memorial Stadium stairs in the opening minutes of practice.
Opening doors?: The absence of Coffey and Crosby gives the younger members of the Tiger receiving corps a chance to step up and prove themselves. Freshmen Jason Ray, Jerrill Humphrey, and William Franklin have had a strong first week and have a chance to solidify their places on the depth chart. Humphrey had several nice catches Saturday, while Ray recorded the "catch of the day" in an 11-on-11 drill late in the morning session.
In spite of the circumstances, Pinkel said the injuries give the young receivers some extra motivation to show the coaching staff what they can do.
"Sean's had a great camp," Pinkel said. "The first five practices, he's done really well. But if you've got some competition in your program, the next guy says ‘Hey, listen, I have a chance to show myself a little bit better.' We've also seen, from a motivational standpoint, that that is hugely important and good for the program."
Tigers No. 18 in AP poll: The preseason Associated Press poll, released Saturday, has Missouri ranked at No. 18. The Tigers are one of four Big 12 teams ranked; No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 7 Texas, and No. 12 Kansas State are the others. Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M made the "Others Receiving Votes" category. USC holds the top spot, earning 48 first-place votes to the Sooners' 11.
The USA Today/Coaches Poll, released earlier this month, tabbed the Tigers No. 17.
Fan frenzy: Sunday afternoon is Fan Day, when Missouri fans can come to Memorial Stadium to meet, take pictures with and get autographs from their favorite Tigers. The event serves to bring the fans a little bit closer to the team, but Pinkel said he has already experienced an excitement in the community.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm," he said. "But I've been in this business for a while. Hopefully it's not going to be a fad. At Toledo, people were like that all the time. At Washington, people were like that all the time…
"I'd like it to become a normal routine. I'm in charge of getting that done."
Catch of the day: Junior QB Brad Smith and Ray connected for one of the best passes of the first week of practice in the red zone portion of the 11-on-11 drill Saturday morning.
Smith, flushed from the pocket and scrambling to his left, neared the sideline when he spotted Ray in the back of the end zone. Smith threw against his momentum and found Ray, who slid on his knees, for a 20-yard touchdown. The play drew the most elaborate celebration of the week from the offense: junior G Tony Palmer hustled to the end zone, grabbed Ray by his shoulder pads and lifted him high into the air as the rest of the offense cheered around him.
(Classic) Hits of the day: Missouri was serenaded by music from adjacent Taylor Stadium during the stretching portion of the afternoon practice. Several Tigers (who will not be identified for their own good) sang along with the music, including a stirring rendition of the refrain from The Temptations' My Girl.
Quote of the day: "We don't sit in the shower and say, ‘What do you think of this guy?'" --Pinkel, on how the coaching staff does not evaluate its players.
Audibles: Freshman WR Greg Bracey, a sprinter on the Missouri track team and clearly the team's fastest player, has the kind of speed that can make him a game-breaker. He scored a 48-yard touchdown on a pass from sophomore QB Brandon Coleman after he simply flew by his defender. If Bracey can hold on to the football, the coaching staff will have to find a place to play him. … Freshman TB Marcus Woods continues to split carriers with junior Damien Nash on the first team offense. Pinkel has suggested using formations that keep both backs on the field, but he has yet to tip his hand on that yet. … Senior CB Nino Williams practiced with the punt return unit for the first time Saturday. He showed steady hands, not dropping a single kick. … Sophomore S David Overstreet saw action as an extra safety--allowing senior S Jason Simpson to move closer to the play--in the top nickel package Saturday morning. He has not stood out often, but that might be because quarterbacks rarely throw to his side of the field.
Looking ahead: The Tigers practice at 10:30 Sunday morning, using the afternoon for the team picture, media day, and Fan Day. Two-a-days continue on an every-other-day schedule, with the next held on Monday.