Non-conference chat: Deep linebacker corps tested early

Will Ebner

Will Ebner returned from a two-game suspension to lead Missouri in tackles against San Diego State and force a fumble against Miami. (Photo by Ross Taylor)

With regular season non-conference play now completed for the Missouri Tigers, KBIA Sports Extra reporters Ross Taylor and JJ Stankevitz will be posting transcripts of chats evaluating Missouri’s play through four games. This morning, the Missouri linebacking corps is under the microscope.

Ross: Coming into the season, it seemed like Missouri’s linebacking corps was the deepest unit on the team. Between injuries and suspensions, Missouri had to test that depth in the first four weeks. What were your overall impressions of the group in non-conference play?

JJ: That Zaviar Gooden isn’t starting if everyone is healthy really speaks to how successful Missouri’s linebacking corps was in non-conference play. Gooden is a guy who Gary Pinkel loosely compared to Sean Weatherspoon during non-conference play, and he can’t even crack Missouri’s starting three. Now, that’s Gooden isn’t in that trio of Will Ebner, Luke Lambert, and Andrew Gachkar isn’t exactly fair to Gooden, who will see plenty of playing time this year rotating in for those linebackers. And even if two of the starting three aren’t healthy or able to play—as was the case against McNeese State—Andrew Wilson has proven to be a more than capable replacement. Darvin Ruise hasn’t seen much playing time, either, but Pinkel believes he can step in if necessary, too. Pinkel said it in his last media day press conference—there aren’t many teams in the nation with six linebackers ready to go, and Missouri’s one of them. So, going forward, how do you see defensive coordinator Dave Steckel mixing and matching the linebackers against Big 12 opponents?

Ross: The beauty for Steckel is that he can mix and match it however he wants. He’s built himself some flexibility within the unit. Though it seemed like a bad stroke of luck as non-conference progressed, the injuries (presuming they don’t linger) could be a blessing in disguise for Missouri. With a non-suspended Ebner and a healthy Lambert, Andrew Wilson’s contributions are probably limited to special teams. Like Gary Pinkel says, not many teams have the luxury of having five or six players capable of playing at a starting level. As you mentioned, the “demotion” of Gooden, a term I use as lightly as possible since Missouri will heavily rotate its linebackers, is somewhat of both a surprise and a testament to Missouri’s depth. Gooden is a freak athlete whose 40-yard-dash time in the spring was almost mythical, so Missouri’s ability to bring an athlete like that off the bench speaks volumes. But Gooden’s “demotion” means that he’s having to make room for the big hammer to return in the middle – what does the no-longer-suspended Will Ebner bring to the Missouri defense?

JJ: Pain. And lots of it. I’m not sure I’ve seen a harder hitter on Missouri’s defense in the last few years—not Sean Weatherspoon, not William Moore. In addition to delivering a bevy of bone-crushing hits, he’s pretty good against the run and pass, too. The great thing about Missouri’s linebacking corps is that it can survive without Ebner, as it did when he missed the first two games due to his regrettable DWI suspension. The same goes for Luke Lambert, who has been slowed by a pulled hamstring for most of non-conference play. While Ebner and Lambert bring a lot to the table defensively, Missouri’s linebacking depth is so great that the group can absorb the loss of one or two of its starters. Looking at the linebackers opposite of Ebner, though, what do you see out of Andrew Gachkar and Luke Lambert?

Ross: Gachkar has been one of the most unappreciated members of Missouri’s defensive turnaround thus far this season. He’s in the midst of a three-way tie for the team lead in tackles, amassing 24 total tackles (17 solo) through four game. He had three tackles for loss, three pass breakups, an interception and a recovered fumble. And, yet, you haven’t heard much about him. His pursuit has always been the facet of his game that draws the most attention, but he’s playing within himself and within the system to really fashion himself into a heady defender. As for Lambert, his injury makes it hard to evaluate his play so far this season. But Lambert has been a quietly solid contributor for years, so if he can get the hamstring to full strength, you’d like to think you know what you’re getting from the senior. If nothing else, his absence opened up opportunities for others, including the feel good story of Josh Tatum.

Josh Tatum

Linebacker Josh Tatum has overcome expectations, injuries and a transfer to contribute for the Tigers in 2010. (Photo by Ross Taylor)

JJ: It was great for Tatum to finally see the field this year, that’s for sure. He came to Missouri last year from the City College of San Francisco as a four-star, top-15 junior college transfer and hoped to make an immediate impact on Missouri’s defense. Instead, Tatum suffered a horrific back injury that kept him out of the entire 2009 season. He’s worked incredibly hard to get back to a level at which he can play, and while he may not see significant time as part of Missouri’s first-team defense in 2010, seeing him back on the field is enough to warm the hearts of those that have followed his situation over the last year and a half. He may be a factor in the future, though, as he has applied for a medical hardship waiver for the loss of his 2009 season that would grant him a sixth season in 2011.


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