COLUMBIA — Although it’s still early in the Missouri football team's preseason camp, a battle is raging at the strong safety position between Jarrell Harrison and Kenji Jackson.
Harrison, a senior, and Jackson, a junior, have entered into a competition that most resembles a talent show. The players split playing time in 2009 with Harrison starting eight games and Jackson starting five. Currently, Jackson is ranked No. 1 on the depth chart and Harrison is second. However, Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said that those rankings could change at any time.
“Someone’s got to be a one and someone’s got to be a two, and we just kind of evaluate them after every practice,” safeties coach Barry Odom said.
Pinkel and Odom stressed consistency when discussing their evaluations of the two safeties, especially because they have similar presences and skills on the field. Pinkel added that he values the competition between the two and that it adds to the drive and ambition of the team as a whole.
“You want to have that kind of competition at every position because the competition breeds success,” Pinkel said. “The guys raise their level in order to win a job.”
Free safety Jasper Simmons agreed with the coaches about his teammates' similarities. He said he thinks whoever can perform the best day-to-day will see the most playing time, and he doesn't think that either has an advantage at this point in the preseason.
“They pretty much have the same stuff. They’re going to compete so hard, and it’s all going to come down to the coaches,” he said. “They’ve both showed that they can play … I would say that Kenji is more talkative … Jarrell probably doesn’t talk as much, but he comes at it just the same as Kenji does.”
Harrison and Jackson are both aware of what the coaches want from them, and they know that constant effort and not making mistakes are crucial to their success.
“It all comes down to being consistent … you don’t want to be making the same mistakes every day,” Harrison said.
Despite the speculation and the constant scrutiny of coaches and cameras, Harrison and Jackson have managed to keep cool heads and remain supportive of one another. Each says that he knows that all he can do is play his hardest. The rest is up to the coaches.
“We’re really a tight-knit group,” Jackson said. “Of course there’s competition within our position, but I mean we’re really close. I encourage him. He encourages me. Of course, the best guy will play, but it’s always a matter of friendship, too, as well as competition.”
Harrison agreed, saying that his biggest competition is with himself as he strives to improve his game. He said he worked hard in the offseason to get in shape, lose weight and improve his footwork. He said these improvements and his constant energy and focus will help to improve his consistency and will work in his favor when the coaches are evaluating his performance during practice and on films.
“We’re just out here going hard every day,” he said. “Believe me, we know it’s a competition, and we both want to play. We need to get better and compete harder every day.”
Jackson said that focusing on the competition with his teammate would only detract from his performance on the field. Instead, he said they try to feed off each other.
“We just always try to keep it up tempo," Jackson said. "It’s whatever we can do on the field to make it count. I’m just going out there and playing football. You can’t really worry about thinking, ‘Oh, I need to perform like this so I can start.’ You know, your mind has to be right here to do your best, and hopefully I will and that will take care of it.”
Pinkel and Odom said most of the details of the position, right now, are still up in the air. Depending on preseason performance, the two players might split starts at strong safety, or if one performs especially well, he could win the position outright. Both Jackson and Harrison know this, and they’re ready to support one another no matter the outcome.
“We just want to come out and do the best that we both can to help our team,” Harrison said, “But, yeah, of course we want to start.”