It is the last season of the old Big 12 Conference, and before the season can start, the media rounds have to be made. On the second day of Big 12 football media gauntlet in Irving, Texas, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel was the first to take to the microphone.
Pinkel addressed several subjects in a late-starting and quickly-run press conference, but did his best to side-step the topic of the 10-team Big 12 and conference realignment, a story in which Missouri played a major role earlier this summer.
With players reporting in a week, the team released a precamp depth chart Tuesday, revealing possible position battles this August.
Six-foot-5, 300 pound redshirt freshman Justin Britt is tentatively listed as the starter at left guard over junior Jayson Palmgren. Britt was listed as a two-star recruit out of Lebanon, but impressed in spring practices enough to be given first crack at the starting job this fall. Palmgren, for now, is the top backup at both guard positions.
Senior linebacker Luke Lambert has been given the edge at middle linebacker over junior Will Ebner, though both are expected to see full playing time, regardless of starter and backup status. Even after losing first-round NFL draft pick Sean Weatherspoon, Missouri has two start-worthy middle linebackers. Andrew Gachkar and Donovan Bonner are at the weakside linebacker position and possible breakout candidate Zaviar Gooden is on the strong side. The linebacker position is low on Gary Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel's list of concerns.
The strong safety position should merit a lively battle for the starting job as well. Kenji Jackson has jumped returning starter Jerrell Harrison on the precamp depth chart, though both names are expected to jostle back and forth as the depth chart evolves.
One of the more interesting position battles will be for the x-wide receiver job. Sophomore speedster Rolandis Woodland is in control of the starting job precamp, but redshirt freshmen L'Damian Washington and Jaleel Clark have the talent to overtake him with strong showings in practice. Freshman wideout Marcus Lucas will get in his first official team practices next week, and is expected to quickly force the other wide receivers to take notice. Lucas committed the Tigers as the top wide receiver in the state of Missouri, and is ranked by Rivals.com as a four-star recruit.
Other incoming freshman who could fight off a redshirt and force Pinkel into giving them playing time are offensive lineman Nick Demien, defensive end Kony Ealy and defensive back Tristan Holt.
"If I gave my opinion, it wouldn't matter," Pinkel said in remarks broadcast live on the Big 12 website. "Those are conference decisions they have to make and institutional decisions within the conference. I leave that for those folks. I'm just trying to have a good football team."
Pinkel also talked about junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert and his expectations for his stars' upcoming season. Gabbert was injured in Missouri's Oct. 8 loss to Nebraska last season. Gabbert sprained his right ankle after a Ndamukong Suh sack in the first quarter. Gabbert played the rest of the game, but was ineffective, completing only 17 of his 43 passes and throwing two interceptions.
Until the last three games of the 2009 conference schedule, Gabbert's mobility was impaired, limiting his ability to scramble. Gabbert played injured against Nebraska, and the following weeks versus Oklahoma State and Texas. The Tigers lost all three games. Even with the losing string, Gabbert threw for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns.
"I think he did a tremendous job last year. We all know he had an injury," Pinkel said. "With the decision and the input of our medical staff, he said he could play, and he played, and he battled through that. That said an awful lot about him. I thought he did a lot of good things."
Pinkel said he expects a fully healthy Gabbert to improve on his 2009 season and do special things in 2010.
"He has a chance to be a great player," Pinkel said.
The Tigers released a tentative preseason depth chart on Tuesday, and freshman quarterback James Franklin is penciled in as Gabbert's backup.
The highly prized recruit graduated from high school at Lake Dallas in Corinth, Texas early to join the Tigers for spring practices. Gabbert, a junior, is draft-eligible at the end of the year and further progress (as Pinkel predicts) could elicit NFL draft interest of the first-round variety. While there will be a full season to sort out if Gabbert will stay or go, Franklin hasn't wasted any time proving that he is the quarterback of Missouri's future. Now the question remains as to how immediate that future is.
Pinkel is quick to temper expectations for Franklin, despite the accelerated development.
"First of all, he's got to keep that job," Pinkel said. "He's moved up to second team. He had a very good spring for a young player. But we also like competition out there. We'll see how that all — we're going to have 27 or so practices prior to our first game. The competition's good, and we'll see how it works out, and then we'll make that decision, whoever the backup quarterback is, kind of how we use them throughout the season."
While Pinkel is apprehensive to give Franklin too much credit, he has no qualms in expecting better things from the Tigers' secondary, a unit that returns four starters in 2010. For most teams, four returning starters in a secondary would be a blessing, but after below-par pass coverage in 2009, Pinkel is looking for his defensive backfield to fulfill its potential this season.
"We got a lot of players back. I think we have to obviously play a little better than we did a year ago, but I think we have a lot of good athletes, and we have more experience than we've had," Pinkel said. "I think a combination of both those things will give us a chance to play well. Obviously, that's our goal."
Another story line that has carried over from spring camp is the new leaner, quicker Tigers. Running back Derrick Washington and Gabbert both slimmed down after last season. Washington broke onto the scene as a sophomore in 2008 but was unable to duplicate that success as a junior in 2009. Heading into his senior season, the slimmed down Washington looked unstoppable in spring practices, and Pinkel said he thinks Washington can carry over that strong form to the fall.
"Well, I think what kind of happened to us a little bit was that a lot of players going to the NFL the last few years were coming back leaner than what we had them," Pinkel said. "We decided to look at our players and learn from that. We applied that not only to Derrick but a few other players. He's much quicker. It's all about quickness and movement. He's a lot quicker guy than he was this past year, and expect that to help him play at a higher level."
The Tigers begin practices Aug. 5, giving the team 29 days to prepare for its first game against Illinois, Sept 4. in St. Louis.