Tail back Kendial Lawrence (4) is pursued by Derrion Thomas (85) and Kentrell Brothers (38) during Saturday's Black and Gold spring football game. Photo by Kelsey Alumbaugh.
Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Here’s a few thoughts about the state of Mizzou football as we wrap up spring drills and the annual Black and Gold Game.
First, while the number of injuries the Tigers are dealing with does make one a little nervous, it also provides badly needed opportunity. Taylor Chappell gets to work with the first string. Mitch Morse gets significant time at center. This all provides a lot more flexibility and depth once Elvis Fisher returns for his long-awaited senior season. Guys like Kony Ealy and Lucas Vincent got a close look with Sheldon Richardson and Brad Madison shelved.
And, just as we discovered Henry Josey because of injuries, we may discover Marcus Murphy, or re-discover Kendial Lawrence, with Josey probably lost for the year. Both showed flashes of real jazz out of the backfield.
But probably the most important outcome from the injury bug was that Corbin Berkstresser got his chance to drive the bus. And we saw exactly what one would expect there — he made a few poor passes, a few poor decisions. He looked like a guy with very little experience. One would be awfully nervous were the Tigers to go into the Sept. 1 opener with Southeast Louisiana with Berkstresser leading the way. He’s not ready yet.
But, after this spring, he’s a heck of a lot more ready than he would have been had he spent the last few weeks with the second string, or carrying a clipboard and visiting with David Yost. And what we saw is encouraging. No, Berkstresser’s not ready to push James Franklin for the one spot yet. But he’s not as far behind as you might think. He was very sharp in the spread offense at Lee’s Summit High, and probably has the best pure arm on the Tigers. He has a cannon, can make all the throws. If he develops the “smarts” — speaking football-wise, of course — and leadership abilities that Franklin already has, don’t be surprised to see discussion of a quarterback race at Mizzou.
And even if we don’t see Berkstresser supplant Franklin in the starter’s role, it’s a luxury for Yost and Gary Pinkel to have a backup QB who is this skilled and, after this spring, is more experienced and ready to go.
As for the running back position, most of the discussion (at least on the field, more on that to come) was about Marcus Murphy. And it’s not hard to see why. Murphy made a couple of runs that would be highlight reel stuff, and his burst of speed will remind people of Josey. He’s about the same size, and coming off a significant injury himself it was encouraging to see Murphy looking to be at full speed.
But, let’s not forget why Lawrence was at the top of the depth chart to begin with. While Murphy was the guy people were talking about after the scrimmage, Lawrence rather quietly averaged more than 10 yards a carry. He’s not as quick as Murphy or Josey, but is bigger and stronger and against SEC defenses, that’s not a small issue. Murphy will contribute big things to this team in 2012, on special teams and quite possibly from scrimmage. But the guy on top on the stack has earned his way there with three seasons of dependable output.
Were I coaching this team and had a first down I had to get, there’s one guy I’m handing the ball to — Kendial Lawrence.
On defense, line depth is the biggest question mark going into 2012. The Tigers have lost some of the best DLs in all of football over the last year or two, and while the top of the stack has some major talent, there are some question marks after that, at least compared to recent years.
That’s why it was encouraging to see strong play from some of those linemen Saturday. Lucas Vincent in particular shined, showing not just some good moves and strength but a burst of speed. Matt Hoch’s moved from tight end to defense line and is showing a lot of improvement. The guy who is best known as “Dan’s little brother” suddenly looks ready to make a name for himself on the line, as he continues to be one of the top special team players on the Tigers.
Finally, two other names popped up on my notes over and over on Saturday. Tavon Bolden started the fall as the third string strong safety, but he made some strong plays Saturday and shows the depth the Tigers have at the position.
And finally, it was a joy to see one of the three Tigers from my old stomping grounds a big day on Saturday. While my fellow natives of Edmond, Okla., cornerbacks Randy Ponder and Xavier Smith both played well Saturday, it was the linebacker from just up the road in Guthrie that really caught my eye. Kentrell Brothers missed last year with a serious injury and showed Saturday that he’s ready to play in 2012. He told me he was a little nervous about his ankle at first, but you couldn’t see it as he not only made four tackles but also was quite effective at pass coverage. He’s a big guy but was quite a receiver for the Blue Jays and still has that speed.
Speaking of my hometown gang, congrats to Ponder, named the most-improved corner on the team during spring drills. Here’s the full list of most improved players, as named by the coaching staff. Most of these are guys who’ve come from further down on the depth chart to being among the top back-ups, but a couple are starters who continue to hone their craft.
Offensive line: Mitch Morse. A strong candidate at guard, he showed his flexibility by playing center with the ones on Saturday, handling the duties quite well.
Defensive line: Matt Hoch. One has to wonder if Kyle and Lori Hoch have any more sons, as Matt continues the family tradition of strong play at Mizzou.
Wide receiver: Gahn McGaffie. Known less and less as just “the guy who ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown against Oklahoma,” McGaffie’s helping give the Tigers just what they need at receiver — a lot of effective targets. SEC defenders may have snickered at the spread as they play “real” football, but suddenly they have to figure out how to stop all these guys, and have to be realizing it won’t be easy.
Linebacker: Donovan Bonner. Second to Darvin Ruise in tackles on Saturday, Bonner’s a scary guy who packs a wallop.
Tight End: Eric Waters. He was already pretty good, hearing of improvement in his game is big news, as he tries to follow in the tradition of outstanding tight ends at Mizzou.
Corner: Randy Ponder. From: Edmond, Okla. But I’ve been bragging on his play for a couple of years now, and if he were from New Jersey or Alaska or Timbuktu I’d be talking about him, a very strong pass defender.
Safety: Kenronte Walker. The secondary was a weak spot for the Tigers not so long ago, but with players like Walker moving up the chart, there’s skill and depth in the backfield for the team.
Quarterback: Corbin Berkstresser. James Franklin is still the leader of this team, but there’s less difference here than you might think, and Berkstresser’s huge arm could someday be a major weapon for this team.
Finally…I’ve written 1,194 words so far, and haven’t mentioned the uniforms. And while on the one hand I’m disappointed that most of the rest of the local press is going on and on about how great these new kits are, I’m even more let down by how much this was turned into “news.” The Columbia Daily Tribune dedicated the entire front page of the sports section Sunday to the uniforms, one had to turn to page four to find any discussion of, you know, football players playing football.
The Tribune also played right into the hands of Mike Alden and Nike by getting reaction almost entirely from players and recruits, while ignoring those more likely to dislike the change, alums and fans over the age of 25.
Because so much attention was paid to this — far more than should have been — I’m tempted to ignore the change altogether. But, not expressing my opinion just ain’t my style, is it? So…
OK, that’s putting it strongly. In fact, I hated them a lot less than I expected. Nike is the bunch that’s dressed the Oregon Ducks like clowns, destroyed the kits of Texas Christian and had Oklahoma State unrecognizable throughout the greatest season in Cowboys history. The Trib reported that this started with Alden correctly wanting consistency in the color scheme, and unfortunately he allowed Nike to con him into changing that which needed no changing. But, at least he had the sense to not go crazy.
He described a ranking, from one to 10. Penn State is a one, Oregon a 10. He said Missouri is conservative and that they need to keep things from going too wild, but then admitted what Mizzou now has is a six. So, they’re not as awful as they might have been, but still more wild than it appropriate for Missouri.
Worst of all is a yellow jersey that looks nothing at all like anything a Mizzou football player has ever worn. But I’m less disturbed by the change in the uniforms than in the helmets. The block-M helmet is among the best looking in all of college football and they tossed it in the dumpster.
No change was needed. Mizzou looked great already. Then they allowed a company that thought it was cool to have little red lines signifying blood from the eyes of Horned Frogs on the helmets of TCU players.
No, I did not make that up.
Yeah, 17-year-olds think the uniforms are cool. But 17-year-olds think lots of ridiculous stuff is cool. To say tradition doesn’t matter, legacy doesn’t matter, it’s moving MU in the exact opposite direction. We’ve noted before that Gary Pinkel’s gone from making this a good football team to making this a great football program. And the teams that Mizzou wants to be compared to — Alabama, Texas, Southern California, Michigan, Nebraska — they all have one thing in common.
Had you turned on a football game in 1974 or 2010, the teams look essentially the same. Teams that change their helmets every few years, that have new uniforms all the time, that change clothes more often than Cher, those aren’t top programs. I hate to point this out, but want to know who changes helmets every few years?
Kansas, that’s who.
As for the other uniforms released this weekend, the men’s basketball kits aren’t an improvement, but after the monstrosities we saw Baylor in a few weeks ago, I’m going to consider what we have a blessing. I have to admit I dig the women’s basketball look. The soccer uniforms were pretty cool, certainly not a move in the wrong direction, and the one that was a substantial improvement was volleyball, which is very, very cool.
The one I’m truly dreading is baseball. Tim Jamieson’s Tigers have one home kit that is what most would call “retro,” what I would call “classic.” The Tiger baseball team’s cap is the same one the Tigers have worn since the days of “Hi” Simmons. Please, Mr. Alden, I’m beggin’ you, leave the Tiger baseball caps alone!
In closing, let me make this comparison, which I think speaks to the symbol of where Missouri really is on this topic, when you think of our favorite team…
When was the last time the St. Louis Cardinals significantly changed their uniforms?