COLUMBIA — Growing up with three older, football-playing brothers, Will Ebner was undersized and overmatched. He knew not to speak unless spoken to, and football was his way of fighting back. Pent up sibling angst turned into hard hits.
His brothers are not around to torment him anymore, but Ebner still plays with a hard-hitting tenacity. A special teams starter as a freshman on the Missouri football team, Ebner is now in his third year with the Tigers and is No. 1 on the team's spring football depth chart at middle linebacker. The defense is without a major vocal leader after losing last season's senior starter Sean Weatherspoon, and Ebner knows that that leadership role has to be filled.
Football might be a fall sport, but the groundwork for the season is laid in the spring. At 1 p.m. Saturday, Missouri football fans can catch their first glimpse of the 2010 Missouri Tigers at the Black and Gold Spring Game. But this game isn’t like most football Saturdays in Columbia. The Tigers play by different rules, wear four different colored jerseys and use two unique scoring systems. Here’s everything you need to know to be ready for the game:
WHEN AND WHERE: Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium, but tickets go on sale at 10:30 a.m. at the ticket office located on the north side of the stadium by the Don Faurot statue.
HOW MUCH: Tickets are priced at $3 for everyone, including students. Or fans can get free admittance by donating three canned food items.
WHO’S WHO: The defense won Tuesday’s scrimmage and earned the right to pick the uniforms for Saturday’s game. The defense chose to wear Missouri’s gold jerseys, which will be paired with black pants, while the offense will wear black jerseys and gold pants. Starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert will wear a green jersey, which means that no one can tackle. The other quarterbacks will wear white jerseys, which signify that they can be hit only above the waist.
WHAT”S GOING ON: The coaching staff decided to tweak the format of this year’s scrimmage. There will still be four quarters of play, but the first and second half will feature two different scoring systems. In the first half, the offensive and defensive starters will take on second and third-string players. The backups will be given a 14-point advantage to begin the game, and the teams will compete using standard football scoring. The day will likely be over for Blaine Gabbert, defensive end Aldon Smith and the other starters come the third quarter, and the game will switch over to the unique Missouri scoring system in which the defense can score on any play, even without the ball.
BETTER THAN THE GAME: Fans shouldn’t read too far into the results of Saturday’s scrimmage. But, the weekend-long Spring Sale outside the Tiger Team Store is certainly a worthwhile attraction. The Spring Sale features Tigers apparel at discounts of 25 to 75 percent, and an opportunity to purchase game-worn Missouri jerseys and equipment. Be warned, the football team wears overly long jerseys, those who buy one should be prepared to tuck them in or grow 10 inches.
* - denotes returning starter
Wide Receiver: 5 - Rolandis Woodland
Wide Receiver: 29 – Jerrell Jackson
Wide Receiver: 8 – Wes Kemp*
Tight End: 82 – Michael Egnew
Quarterback: 11 – Blaine Gabbert*
Tailback: 24 – Derrick Washington*
Left Tackle: 73 – Mark Hill
Left Guard: 66 – Austin Wuebbels
* Center: 62 – Tim Barnes*
Right Guard: 71 – Jayson Palmgren
Right Tackle: 77 – Dan Hoch*
Defensive End: 57 – Brad Madison
Defensive End: 85 – Aldon Smith*
Defensive Tackle: 93 – Terrell Resonno
Defensive Tackle: 90 – Dominique Hamilton*
Weakside Linebacker: 6 – Andrew Gachkar*
Middle Linebacker: 32 – Will Ebner
Strongside Linebacker: 25 – Zaviar Gooden
Strong Safety: 11 – Jarrell Harrison*
Free Safety: 9 – Jasper Simmons*
Cornerback: 20 – Kevin Rutland*
Cornerback: 19 – Carl Gettis*
Kicker: 95 – Grant Ressel*
Punter: 99 – Matt Grabner
Injured 2009 Starters:
Defensive End: 3 – Jacquies Smith
Tight End: 87 – Andrew Jones
Left Tackle: 72 – Elvis Fisher
"Spoon and Jaron Baston were the vocal leaders on the defense last year," Ebner said. "Lots of guys are capable of filling that role, and I'm trying to be one of them."
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he expects Ebner to succeed in his new leadership role, just has he as succeeded on the playing field.
Ebner played in all 14 games as a freshman in 2008, mostly as a special teams player, and this time last year, Ebner recovered from offseason shoulder surgery better than was expected. He put together a strong spring, and was named the most improved linebacker of the 2009 spring practices. Ebner was injured again when he tore the meniscus in his right knee against Nebraska last October, but he came back only two weeks later and had seven tackles against Texas. Ebner’s name was on the top of the depth chart the week after that and has stayed there since.
“Experience will make him a much better player, but he’s at the position now, linebackers are a lot like the quarterback of the defense, that requires one to be verbal and communicate,” Pinkel said. “I think he’ll do all of those things.”
Ebner might hit loudly, but off the field, he is as soft-spoken as they come. Taking on a vocal leadership role might seem out of his comfort zone, but after two years of solid play, and showing a toughness in playing through injury, Ebner said he thinks he has earned the respect of his teammates and can step into the role.
“It’s time for certain people to step up, for the team’s sake.” Ebner said. The Texas-native is careful not to speak about himself, constantly deferring to linebacker and team goals.
The player Ebner moved past on the depth chart last season, senior Luke Lambert, said he has seen a change in his teammate.
“His comfort zone is a lot better. He’s just a lot more comfortable in the interior now,” Lambert said. “He’s playing at a different level.”
Ebner is always playing at full speed, even during practice. On Tuesday during a linebackers' tackling drill, he put a particularily vicious hit on Lambert. Later, during full-speed 11-on-11 drills, Ebner charged into a pile of linemen and stripped the ball from running back Kendial Lawrence’s hands.
Ebner plans to take the same intensity into Saturday’s spring game.
“I never lay back on the offense,” Ebner said with a wry smile. “We’ve been going back and forth for the past four or five weeks, and you get real tired of seeing them. The defense is going to come out, and show what we are made of.”