A few days into practice, coach Gary Pinkel said he had hoped Columbia's unusually cool weather would reverse itself, giving his players a chance to practice in the heat that is standard for August in Missouri. Temperatures approached 90 degrees for the first time Wednesday, but, by Friday, it was back to the abnormal.
Missouri practiced in windy and rainy conditions Friday morning, as the temperature remained in the low 60s and the conditions chased the small media contingent to the press box. The players trudged through their drills, experiencing rain in practice for the first time this fall.
It was a surreal scene in what, according to the calendar at least, is August in mid-Missouri.
"It's like I'm back in Seattle," Pinkel said after practice, as he and his interviewers avoided the rain but dealt with a chilly wind in the tunnel beneath the south end zone.
The weather, particularly the wind, wreaked havoc with several parts of practice. It affected the kickers the most, as they struggled mightily against a steady gust that seemingly blew in all directions. The leading candidates for extra point and field goal duties, sophomore Alex Pettersen and junior Joe Tantarelli, had kicks land all over the field. One of Tantarelli's tries had the leg to sneak over the crossbar, if it had not been 15 yards wide. Pettersen struggled just as much, making the kicking game look much worse than it actually is.
The Tiger passers struggled with the conditions as well. Besides freshman Chase Patton, who fumbled two snaps, all seemed to handle the wet ball well, until they attempted to throw. Many passes from sophomore Brandon Coleman sailed high, and freshman Mack Breed, who has struggled with his timing as it is, certainly did not benefit from the adverse conditions.
The receivers, on the other, uh, hand, fared pretty well. Like the quarterbacks, they did not often struggle with a slippery ball, corralling most passes thrown their way. Junior WR Arnold Britt made a nice running catch after junior QB Brad Smith scrambled to his left and found him in the back of the end zone in the 11-on-11 drill Friday morning. Freshman TB Marcus Woods made some nice catches out of the backfield on swing passes.
The unusual weather drew some unique reactions out of the defensive line. One member of the group whistled the fight song as he waited in line for a mobility drill, but senior DT Phil Pitts had one of the most memorable sequences of the fall.
In a drill that requires the player to grab a dummy connected to a sled, push it for a bit, and drop it on its side, Pitts completed two-thirds of the drill. He slipped while pushing the dummy, falling to the ground without bringing the dummy with him.
This brought a smattering of laughter from his line mates and forced Pitts to do the drill again. He completed it this time, adding a swift kick to the gut of the dummy after the takedown.
Pinkel said afterwards that it benefits the players to face these conditions in practice, for they will likely see them again sometime this season.
"We haven't had a wet ball this year, so it's really good," he said.
"But I didn't expect it to be this cold, sideways rain and everything else."
Injury update: Missouri remains remarkably healthy. The Tigers practiced with just one player--senior WR Thomson Omboga--in a red, no-contact jersey Monday morning, and his rib injury was not related to an on-field incident. Omboga looks close to 100 percent and plans to participate in Saturday's scrimmage.
Omboga practiced without the red pullover Friday afternoon, but that was likely due to the non-contact mindset of the session, rather than an improvement in Omboga's condition.
Looking for leverage: The Tigers' run defense remains a concern after it was shredded by Kansas State and Arkansas late last season. The defense, as a whole, has dominated practice this fall, but Pinkel said there is one aspect that needs to improve further: leverage.
As Pinkel explained it, leverage refers to a defensive player forcing the ball carrier to the middle of the field, where the majority of the defensive help is. If the defensive player cannot achieve this--due to a block, missed read, or just a poor play--the runner can break to the sideline for a big gain.
Generally, the run defense has been strong up the middle, but when the runner takes it outside, all bets are off. Finding consistency in this area is vital, Pinkel said.
"That's where we're really trying to improve," he said. "That's been really hurting us the last few days. We're doing some good things, but that is how you reduce big plays, to have a great leverage defensive football team."
Scrimmage schedule: The Tigers' second scrimmage of the fall season arrives Saturday afternoon. It will be similar to Tuesday morning's scrimmage, which the defense dominated and yielded about 35 plays per unit, but with more situational work.
Having spent more time in short yardage situations the past few days in practice, the Tigers will focus on those areas. The offense will have a drill that places the ball two yards deep in its own end zone, forcing them to work out of negative territory and avoid the safety.
The red zone will also be a focus, and the Tigers will practice with a game clock in certain situations for the first time. Pinkel said he expects each unit to run about 40 plays.
Only passing permitted: Smith has earned Heisman consideration for his ability to run the ball, but the coaching staff wants him to become more of a dual threat this season, forbidding him from dropping down and running with the ball in practice.
That might change at Saturday's scrimmage, but Pinkel said he has seen improvement in Smith, even comparing him to one of the best.
"It's starting to pay off a little bit," he said. "He's getting secondary receivers a little better (and there are) opportunities for big plays when the defense breaks down…
"When I was at Washington and John Elway--he was at Stanford--75 percent of his big plays were outside of the pocket. He just made plays up out there. Not only Brad can go forward and make plays running the ball--we'll let him go here pretty soon--the other side of it is, I think we have the potential for big plays downfield."
Smith is dangerous enough as it is, but with the ability to complete downfield passes, he would become nearly impossible to defend.
"Now, if he can throw the ball well, if he can make plays, if he can scramble and make plays, if he can do all those things, then you're really scared and nervous," Pinkel said, referring to coaches of opposing defenses. "Obviously he's a great threat and I expect him to be a total threat his year. That's what we want to happen."
Afternoon delight: The Tigers' afternoon practice was their shortest of the fall. The players dressed in helmets and shorts, eschewing pads for the first time since early last week. There was no contact in the session.
The Tigers practiced a handful of special teams situations, including bad punt snaps, onside kicks, free kicks, and fake field goals and punts. The offense also practiced the quarterback kneel down and a drill that instructed the quarterback how to run the clock down.
Catch of the day: Freshman WR William Franklin made a leaping catch of a slightly overthrown pass from Coleman in the 11-on-11 drill Friday morning. Franklin had three defenders close by, but was able to snag it and hold on as he tumbled to the turf, gaining about 10 yards.
Hit of the day: It was not a big impact that brought cheers from his teammates, but the coaching staff surely took notice. Junior WR Sean Coffey caught a pass on the sideline and had a chance to score; a block from sophomore WR Brad Ekwerekwu on freshman CB Alex Woodley would secure it. Ekwerekwu did more than just block Woodley: he latched onto him and forced him to the ground, allowing Coffey to score easily.
Quote of the day: "I know where we're at. I know exactly where we're at. I just won't tell anybody." --Pinkel, on whether Saturday's scrimmage would help him sort out the roster better than Tuesday's, which several players missed due to injuries.
Audibles: Freshman TB Tony Temple participated in all of the day's drills, his first crack at that since rejoining the team Wednesday. The Tigers practiced in shoulder pads and shorts in the morning, so Temple has still not suited up completely, but he looked quick and shifty. ... Senior DT Atiyyah Ellison is very quick for his size (6-4, 300) and has a powerful burst off the line. Watching him motor through drills is a treat, as he seems to have a gear that nobody else on the team has. ... The Tigers' best weapon in the red zone appears to be their running game. The passing attack seems to lose its effectiveness here; many times, a pass is completed to a tight end, but for very little yardage before a defender gets there. The backs, particularly Woods, seem to thrive in this situation. ... Only 15 days until the offensive juggernaut known as Arkansas State visits Memorial Stadium.
Looking ahead: The Tigers have their second--and longest--scrimmage of the season scheduled for Saturday afternoon at 1. Having wrapped up two-a-days Friday, they return to practice Sunday afternoon, before getting a day off Monday, the first day of classes.