COLUMBIA -- There’s a hole in the Missouri defense. It’s a bit more than 6 feet tall, with a 240-lb. frame and a big personality.
The hole is Sean Weatherspoon. Picked in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Atlanta Falcons, Weatherspoon is the most conspicuous player missing from the Tiger defense this season, and his teammates acknowledge that playing without their former leader has been an adjustment. However, with a strong core of players and a wealth of experience, Missouri’s linebackers seem ready for a successful season.
“With Spoon gone, it’s definitely a big hole, but we feel this year that we’ve got five or six linebackers that can get in the game,” said Andrew Gachkar, a weakside linebacker.
Gachkar, who played weakside during his first two years on the team before switching to strongside for the 2009 season, is comfortable with moving back to weakside to replace Weatherspoon. His coaches are confident in his ability to do so.
“He was the backup last year at that position, so he’s doing great,” defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said.
Gachkar says that he learned much of what he knows about playing at the college level as a linebacker from Weatherspoon.
“He probably doesn’t know it, but I looked up to him more than anyone here,” Gachkar said. “I learned everything I did from him, and I just admire him the most out of anybody… Spoon would teach you to just take a chance and believe in your skills as a player, and obviously no one believed in their skills better than he did.”
Luke Lambert, a middle linebacker, agreed that Weatherspoon was a great role model for his younger teammates. He said that the most meaningful thing he learned from Weatherspoon was to pay close attention to film.
“He watched a lot of film and looked at the things other teams were doing,” Lambert said. He looked at the guard and tackle, pre-snap, what they were doing. What they do on a snap affects us.”
Gachkar and Lambert agreed that Weatherspoon had a huge presence on the team, and they know that his absence calls for several adjustments. They’ll not only have to work on their physical skills, but they’ll also have to make up for Weatherspoon’s big personality.
“Spoon was real vocal, you know, the loudest guy on the team,” strongside linebacker Zaviar Gooden said. “Made me real vocal. You know, we’ve all got to be leaders now… we’re all trying to step up and be leaders for the defense.”
They know that they can’t replace him with one person, and they are instead looking to the group as a whole to step up.
“I’m not going to be as good as Spoon,” Gachkar said. “I know that. People know that.”
Even so, Gachkar is holding his own at the position and doing his part to form a strong core with Lambert, Gooden, Will Ebner and the other linebackers. He says that though the team’s linebackers have been strong for the past three years, this year’s linebacker core has the potential to surpass prior teams.
“It’s not so much that one person,” Lambert said. “We’re making sure that everyone’s making plays and hitting the right spots. We need to be attacking the ball the way we should be attacking the ball.”
Gooden, a redshirt sophomore, saw his first playing time at linebacker in the 2009 season and impressed his coaches and teammates with his performance. Gachkar said that Gooden has risen to the level of the other starting linebackers, and Gooden agrees that he, Gachkar, Lambert and Ebner have formed the heart of a strong linebacker core.
“Four people with another year of experience,” Gooden said. “We’re quicker, stronger, faster and bigger.”
The linebackers also know that they must work especially hard not only to make up for Weatherspoon’s absence, but also to assert that the Missouri defense has improved in the offseason.
“We take some criticism from last year,” Gachkar said.”We had a couple games where, yeah, we gave it up, but overall we were new, we were getting used to it. This year, we’ve got top 10 in the nation talent out there on defense, so the sky’s the limit for us.”
Gooden agreed and said that he thinks the Tigers defense will surprise its opponents. Many people focus on the fact that Weatherspoon will be missing from the line of scrimmage, and Gooden says that they might be overlooking the bigger improvements that the defense has made.
“I believe we’re going to shock a lot of people,” he said. “I believe we’re going to be one of the top defenses, if not the top defense, in the Big 12… I think we’re going to be a lot better than people expect. We’re going to turn some heads.”
Gachkar, Gooden, Lambert and their fellow linebackers are definitely demanding a lot from one another and the defense and a whole. With each block and tackle that they execute on the practice fields, the gaping hole they’re trying to fill looks smaller and smaller.