COLUMBIA — Illinois kick returner Troy Pollard caught a second-quarter kickoff Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome, seeking an opening in coverage.
Pollard moved toward the left as he headed upfield. He made a slight right to straighten his path at the 15-yard line, splitting the gap between two Missouri Tigers in pursuit without slowing down.
Unfortunately for Pollard, he didn't expect Will Ebner.
Ebner, a sophomore linebacker for Missouri who also regularly helps cover kickoffs, met Pollard head-on at the 25-yard line. With a thud, he stopped Pollard's progress cold. In fact, Ebner pushed him back a yard.
"All of a sudden, it's like he (Pollard) hit a brick wall," coach Gary Pinkel recalled Monday. "He hit Will Ebner."
Ebner, listed as a reserve linebacker behind junior Luke Lambert, had his best game to date as a Tiger on Saturday. Getting considerable time at linebacker and on kickoff coverage, he was involved in seven tackles, tied for second-best on the team.
Pinkel said a big hit like the one Ebner delivered to Pollard not only affects the ballcarrier but also influences teammates.
"That's why we used to say, 'Everybody's got a plan until you get hit,'" Pinkel said. "That physical play … filters down amongst our whole football team."
While Ebner played only sparingly on defense last year as a freshman, Pinkel said his work on special teams helped him contribute.
"Here's an example of a guy, too, that played last year as a freshman," Pinkel said. "He got onto the kicking (coverage), did a lot of things and now is playing at a whole different level now because of the experience of the year before."
Ebner agreed playing last year helped prepare him for significant minutes in the 2009 season opener.
"Really just this year, the difference when I step on the field (is) I feel like I've been there," he said. "It's not like stepping into a new thing, where my head's spinning. You're not walking on the field saying, 'Man, these guys are a whole lot bigger than last year.' They're not a whole lot faster, so it really slows the game down.
"You feel like you're on top of the game instead of being the guy that's worried about your surrounding."
Senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has spent time with Ebner and said he's watched him improve.
"We sit together in our meetings," Weatherspoon said. "So I kind of talk to him, give him some tips here and there. He's been using them, and he's been making plays."
Junior linebacker Luke Lambert said playing at the collegiate level has become more natural for Ebner.
"He's really gotten into his own," Lambert said. "He's got a hold of the defense now, and he's getting to be able to play with his own speed. You know, not thinking out there, he's really just playing ball."
It's clear Ebner has quickly developed a reputation as one of Missouri's hardest hitters.
"He's a banger. He's one of those linebackers that likes contact," Weatherspoon said.
Pinkel said he likes Ebner's work ethic and stamina, which were on display recently when Ebner was recovering from a minor injury.
"Will last week hurt his neck, and he had a neck brace. Tuesday, we're thinking, 'There's no way in the world this guy's going to play.' He's a tough guy. He's a really tough guy. We all know 'Spoon (Weatherspoon) can strike you and hit you and jolt you, but Will's really a very, very physical player," he said.
Ebner said his desire to make the jarring hit has roots in the way he was taught football. Both his father, Tommy Ebner, and oldest brother, Jake Ebner, played football at the University of Houston.
"That's just linebacker's mentality," he said. "All growing up in high school, my dad kind of raised me that way, (along with) my older brothers. I guess I kind of followed their footsteps. So that's just part of my game."
Ebner said he will continue to hold himself responsible for maintaining the defense's level of play when he goes in for one of the other linebackers who have supported his development as an athlete and teammate.
"Luke and 'Spoon and even Andrew Gachkar, they're all great leaders that set real good examples on and off the field," he said. "So I've got good guys to look up to, guys to follow. It just makes it even better when I'm on the field with them because they know what they're doing."