Missouri's special teams unit appeared to be the most disorganized segment of the team entering training camp this season. With nine defensive starters returning and most of the key parts of the offense in tact, the Missouri coaching staff knew what to expect from most of the team.
The specialists, however, were anything but decided. Junior K Joe Tantarelli took advantage of the situation, wrestling away the starting job from sophomore Alex Pettersen, Missouri's lone scholarship kicker the past three years.
"It was a battle," Tantarelli said this week.
No kicker dominated training camp, making Pettersen the likely candidate to hold onto the starting job, by default. The coaching staff went in a different direction and now Pettersen is gone, having left the team after losing his starting job to a walk-on for a third consecutive year.
"I kind of heard about that," Tantarelli said. "If he feels that was the best decision for Alex Pettersen, so be it. We all, at some point in time, make those decisions. We have to make the decisions that are best for ourselves, and I think that's what Alex did."
Tantarelli's debut against Arkansas State could not have gone much better. In the 52-20 win, Tantarelli hit seven extra points and a field goal from 17 yards on the Tigers' last drive.
Led by backup QB Brandon Coleman, the Tigers drove XX yards to the goal line, where freshman TB Marcus Woods had two chances to punch the ball in. He could not cross the line, leaving it up to Tantarelli to record the first three-point play of his collegiate career.
"I told Marcus after the game that football was, seriously, a foot or two off that goal line," Tantarelli said. "I was hoping he got in. Hey, I'll take the field goal but I was really rooting for Marcus to get in the end zone and cap off a drive for Brandon."
Oddly enough, the field goal was the shortest kick of Tantarelli's evening.
"It's funny; a field goal usually isn't shorter than a PAT," he said. "But I was ready…I was just rooting for Marcus to get in that end zone. But hey, I'll take the three points."
Tantarelli, who made a name for himself at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College, had some experience kicking in big games, but nothing like the Division-1A atmosphere of Memorial Stadium. Still, once Saturday evening arrived, Tantarelli was ready.
"Coming into the game a couple days before, the nerves were going a little bit," he said. "I got out there on game day and I felt good. I felt very comfortable; I wasn't too nervous at all. It was one of those good feelings…I was nice and relaxed."
Tantarelli had the experience that many players sense on the field, feeling focused and in the metaphorical "zone." Of course, it's easy to feel that way when you make all eight of your kicks in your collegiate debut.
"I see the ball and I kick it," Tantarelli said. "I know there is (holder Brad Smith's) cadence, but quite honestly, I don't even hear those. For me, it's just a zone, 100 percent focused and concentrating on doing my job."
If he continues to do his job, Missouri fans will be able to breathe a little easier this season.
The rest of the special teams unit was up and down in the season opener. Senior P Brock Harvey had a strong season debut, dropping every kick he made inside the five-yard line.
Of course, with the way the Missouri offense dominated the Indians, Harvey only had to punt once. Still, the kick was spot on and pinned Arkansas State deep in its own territory.
The coverage teams could surface as a concern this season. Kick-off specialist Adam Crossett had a strong evening, sending all of his kicks inside the five-yard line. His coverage unit did not help much, as the Indians had a few long returns.
If Crossett's kicks did not have the hang time necessary to allow for good coverage, that issue is correctable. If, instead, the coverage team took the wrong angles and could not drop the return man quickly enough, the coaching staff needs to fix the issue before it costs the Tigers vital field position--or points--in a big game down the line.