COLUMBIA - Only two days into Missouri's preseason training camp, one highly-touted freshman is thinking that sitting out the upcoming season might be a good idea.
Quarterback Tyler Gabbert doesn't have the luxury of being able to move to another position, like other Missouri freshman, to score playing time, and though coaches haven't approached Gabbert about taking a redshirt, Gabbert said that he has given the concept some thought.
BONNER INJURED: Outside linebacker Donovan Bonner sat out practice on Friday with what Pinkel called a knee strain. According to Pinkel, Bonner felt pain in a different part of the knee this morning, and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Friday. Bonner, a sophomore, is listed as Andrew Gahkar's backup at weakside linebacker on the depth chart.
TRIED AND TRUE PLAY: The Tigers ran more bubble-screens than any team north of Texas in 2009. The play made Danario Alexander one of the best receivers in the nation, and was a go-to for Blaine Gabbert on every down. If Friday's practice was any indication, that play will be used frequently again in 2010 with Jerrell Jackson the target of choice on the play. The Tigers ran the play a few times in practice on Friday, and tight end Michael Egnew, responsible for blocking Jackson's cornerback on the play, abused Kevin Rutland during padless 11-on-11.
DEEP END: Freshman Eric Waters looked good again in practice on Friday, but junior Beau Blakely was just as impressive. Egnew has the ability to stretch the field better than his other tight ends, but on 10-yard and in routes, all four look like starters, albeit in a small sample size.
HOTLY-CONTESTED POSITION: Much has been made of the X-wide receiver position, with Rolandis Woodland being chased by a talented group of freshman. Currently, L'Damian Washington is Woodland's No.1 contender, but Washington had a hot and cold practice. He started extremely strong, catching everything within a 25-foot radius, but faded at the end. Washington was pulled from the second team during seven-on-seven drills after being unable to corral a pass above his head that he was able to get both hands on. It would have been a remarkable catch, had be been able to hold on, as Washington used his Thomas Gardner-like vertical to go up and get the ball. Woodland had a hot and cold practice as well, filling his quota of dropped balls. The difference between Woodland and Washington at this point is that Woodland is able to overcome dropped balls with great catches. For every drop, Woodland makes two great catches. Combine that with the fact that Woodland stretches the field better than any receiver on the team with his athleticism, and it is no surprise that Woodland is Jared Perry's replacement.
HARD KNOCKS: Linebacker Andrew Wilson laid out wide receiver T.J. Moe during seven-on-seven drills. Moe ran a seven-yard drag route over the middle of the field, and Wilson blew him up nanoseconds after the ball reached Moe. The 6-foot wide receiver popped right up.
FUTURE CONNECTION: Franklin and freshman wide receiver Marcus Lucas played catch after practice. Franklin said that whenever either of them doesn't have a good practice, they like to play catch to atone. When if the tandem should excite Tiger fans, Franklin gave a wry smile and said "Yeah."
Gabbert is one of two freshmen quarterbacks on the team, and after seven months with the team, Gabbert isn't satisfied with his progress. Gabbert and fellow freshman quarterback James Franklin both graduated high school early to join the Missouri team for spring practices, and both quarterbacks said that joining the team early was a wise decision. But the choice is working out significantly better for Franklin than Gabbert, so far. After a strong showing in spring practice, Franklin is listed as the team's second-string quarterback as a true freshman — Gabbert is fifth-string, the last quarterback on the depth chart.
A few true freshmen will see playing time in 2010. Which players they will be remains to be seen. Head Coach Gary Pinkel and his coaching staff are using August's preseason camp to evaluate the new players, and make the expert decision to put a redshirt on the first-year players, saving a year of eligibility in the process, or have them on the depth chart and ready to play for the 2010 season.
Coming out of high school, Franklin and Gabbert were both rated similarly by recruiting evaluators, and both have looked sharp in early practices. Franklin does have the natural advantage of being two inches taller than the six-foot Gabbert, and Franklin did add roughly 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason, but with the ball in their hands, and in the air, there is little difference between the two freshmen.
With the 2010 season a month away, Franklin has been dubbed the de facto heir to Blaine Gabbert's starting job, whenever the starting quarterback relinquishes it. Under the presumption that Franklin plays four years and maintains his rank, the younger Gabbert could be on the sidelines for four years — certainly not something he expected when he reneged on his commitment to Nebraska and signed with Missouri.
Gabbert said that a redshirt is something he would be interested in, though he still feels he can overtake Franklin on the depth chart with a strong preseason camp.
"There's positives and negatives about the redshirt," Gabbert said. "We haven't really talked about it, but a redshirt is a year to get bigger in the weight room and learn the system. But, I definitely want to climb the depth chart. It's no fun sitting at the bottom."
Pinkel and his staff keep a keen eye on the newcomers during practice, and analyze their play when they watch practice tape during meetings. In those meetings, every player is discussed and by the end of the month, a decision will be made on everyone's role on the team.
Pinkel said that talent is taken into consideration when evaluating first years, but that several other factors play a big part in whether a freshman will be in the lineup for Missouri's first game.
"I tell my players that it has a lot to do with physical maturity, whether you can play or not. It has a lot to do with depth at the position whether you can play or not," Pinkel said. "It has to do a lot with can you learn the complexity of whatever position you are at, some positions are more difficult to learn than others."
One of the players who will be under close evaluation is freshman offensive lineman Nick Demien. The 6-foot-6, 295-pound Wentzville native came to camp as one of the team's best recruits, and has is being experimented in new positions in camp to see if he can contribute as a freshman.
Demien, rated as a four-star recruit by Rivals.com, projects as a left tackle for the Tigers, protecting the quarterback's blind side. In his short time with the Tigers, Demien has played three different offensive line positions: left tackle, left guard and right guard. The Tigers are thin at guard, and the left guard position is currently held by a redshirt freshman, Justin Britt.
In his second full practice, Demien played guard with the third- and fourth-string lines, but could move up the depth chart at the position as camp progresses. Even so, the possibility of the star prospect being redshirted for the 2010 season looms.
Demien's first two practices haven't instilled too much confidence in him, but he admits learning a new position, even if it's only a few feet to the right, is tough. Demien said he hasn't given too much thought to redshirting this season, and he feels he can contribute positively to the team as a true freshman.
Wide receiver Jaleel Clark redshirted the 2009 season, and he said that decision to sit out helped him tremendously in making him a possible breakout candidate in 2010.
"I think it was the right decision. I got to sit back and watch how individual football is really played and learned the system," Clark said.
Using the 2009 season to his advantage, Clark made big plays in spring practice and now sits second behind Wes Kemp on the wide receiver depth chart. With an equally strong preseason camp, Clark could see significant playing time in 2010.
Another bonus — a big bonus — of the redshirt is keeping a year of eligibility.
"I have four years ahead of me. Who really knows what could happen?" Clark said with a smile.
Above all other criterion, Pinkel said a player's evaluation will rest on their maturity level and their projected ability to handle the pressures of a Big 12 football season, .
"Bottom line, are you mature enough to be thrown into the arena with 70,000 people?" Pinkel said. "That's hard."
Pinkel joked that he wouldn't have been capable of playing in front of 70,000 fans as a freshman at Kent State, where the record attendance for a football game is 27,363 people.
"I'd like to lie and say that I can, but I can't do it," Pinkel said.
Pinkel and his coaches will gauge the maturity level of their players the old-fashioned way — spending time around them. Even if Pinkel and co. believe that the freshman is capable of handling the atmosphere, Pinkel said might not throw them into the arena.
"There's a lot of great players who have redshirted."