COLUMBIA - Away from the field, Missouri linebacker Luke Lambert doesn't look like someone who would be starting for a major college team. With his glasses on as he walks through the Missouri weight training complex, Lambert looks more like someone from a university 's science department.
That fits because Lambert's academic interests are nutritional sciences and sports medicine. But that's not the Lambert that Missouri's opponents see on Saturdays. They see a tackler who has put in the work required throughout the week to stop their attack.
at No. 6 Missouri (2-0)
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
TV: Fox Sports Net
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
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"Luke's a hard worker, and he's a real tough kid," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said. "He's a real good tackler. We plan on using him a bunch. He's done a real nice job."
By Lambert's own admission, there is a big difference in his work ethic from last season.
"Last year, during practice, I'd just be like, ‘Let's get through practice, let's get through practice,'" he said. "Now, I want to go to practice, and I want to get better. I want to get better today. I want to get better tomorrow."
With Lambert playing more snaps because of senior Van Alexander's injury, improvement has been vital in his ability to step into the spotlight as a sophomore. He said that game experience is a big reason for his performance.
"I just know what I'm doing now," he said. "I go through the plays, I know what I'm supposed to do, I know my responsibility. I'm not guessing, I'm doing my responsibility to help out the team."
Fellow linebacker Will Ebner, a true freshman, finds himself in the same spot that Lambert was in last year, trying to find his role in an experienced group. Although head coach Gary Pinkel and Eberflus have both said that linebacker is the most difficult position to learn on defense, Ebner has already carved himself a niche as a hard-hitting defender with a nose for the ball.
"Will Ebner's a young man that's got great ability to find the football," Eberflus said. "He reminds me of a young Brock Christopher. He's got a bright future ahead of him because he's a real tough, physical kid who knows how to use his hands. It's invaluable for a linebacker to have a nose for the ball, and he's real good at that."
But it's what he does to the person with the ball after he finds it that gives him pleasure.
"It's really all a desire, you've got to want to hit," Ebner said. "When you've got it, you've got it. I love to hit people, and when you do it, it's a great feeling. You get up knowing that you just knocked the crap out of someone."
While Brock Christopher and Sean Weatherspoon have received most of the recognition that comes with being a returning starter, Lambert, Ebner and Andrew Gachkar have been instrumental in making the toughest defensive position to play a big strength for the Tigers, even with one of their best players at the position on the sidelines. Their efforts haven't gone unnoticed by the veterans.
"The guys are doing a great job," Christopher said. "Luke's come in and done a nice job, which we knew he would. Gachkar is a story in itself coming off his surgery and all he's been through in the offseason. Obviously, Will Ebner played great. That kid's going to be a stud around here."
Christopher's quick praise is no surprise to Ebner, who said he appreciates how close the linebackers are.
"We're all good friends, we all work together," Ebner said. "There's no battles in between the group. We're all in it together, we all want each person to be the best that they can."
Alexander is expected to return for Missouri's game on Saturday against Nevada, but with Lambert's performance as a starter paired with how much Pinkel values experience for freshmen, both Lambert and Ebner will still play significant roles.
"I think he'll be back full strength," Lambert said of Alexander. "When he gets back, we're going to have a lot more depth. Van's someone you can't really replace. He's one of the hardest hitters we have on the team, I think. He's going to jump right into the mix, and we're going to be a better team."
If Alexander does show signs of limping and is unable to play, he'll still be able to contribute for the Tigers against the Wolf Pack.
"He's still the first person you go to to ask, ‘What do I do on this play?'" Ebner said. "Being a freshman, I go to everyone for advice. As much as he (Van) wishes he could be on the field, he wants the team to be as best as it can as well. That's how all the guys are. When you put that together, it makes a group of linebackers that perform well together."