COLUMBIA — At 6 feet 5 inches and 235 pounds, Blaine Gabbert casts a large shadow.
That’s a good thing, because there are four backup quarterbacks standing in it, jostling for playing time and hoping to seize the No. 2 position. James Franklin, Jimmy Costello, Ashton Glaser and Tyler Gabbert each wear green quarterback jerseys in preseason practice, and the competition is heating up to see who will earn the distinction of playing as Blaine Gabbert’s backup. After Saturday’s scrimmage, head coach Gary Pinkel is still unsure who will seize that role.
“I mean, I think there’s still a lot of competition there, which is good,” Pinkel said. “It’s OK. Again, you just don’t look at a scrimmage ... there’s a lot of things besides the scrimmage, although this is gameday and it does carry some weight.”
Although Pinkel and offensive coordinator Dave Yost say that the second-string position is still wide open, Yost acknowledges that Costello and Franklin have an edge over Glaser and the younger Gabbert.
“It’s definitely competition,” Costello said. “You know, I like it because it’s going to make us all better. Any time we push each other, we’re going to make each other better. We’ve got to put the pressure on each other and see who fights their way out.”
Though they are practicing side-by-side on the field and working together to improve their games, the two top contenders could not have taken more different paths to where they are today.
Costello, a junior from Liberty, started his career at Missouri as a walk-on in 2007. He didn’t gain much notice until 2009, when both his preseason performance and the loss of Blaine Dalton earned him the No. 2 quarterback position. But in three games, Costello was less than impressive under gametime pressure, and he enters the 2010 season fighting for his spot.
“He knows the offense, he understands the defense,” Yost said. “It’s that decision-making after the snap where everything breaks down. That’s really what quarterbacks are judged on, what they do when bad things happen ... what we’re trying to focus on is making good decisions after the snap when things break down.”
Franklin, a true freshman from Corinth, Texas, was ranked as the No. 11 quarterback prospect this year by Scout.com. He arrived at Missouri in the spring to high expectations, and Yost says that he’s been living up to the hype. The offensive coordinator compared Franklin’s progress to that of both Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert and said that his play is a bit better than Blaine Gabbert’s at this point in his freshman year and slightly worse than Daniel’s.
“There’s times when he exceeds expectations, and I’ve got to remember all the time that he’s a true freshman still,” Yost said.
Yost says that Costello and Franklin have different strengths and weaknesses, and each faces a different challenge in preseason play. Costello must work to improve from last year, and Franklin must live up to the high expectations that the coaching staff has set for him.
“There’s a little bit of pressure, I guess, but I kind of see it as everyone expects me to become a better quarterback,” Franklin said. “So you get better, you move up, and you get more responsibilities. And now my responsibilities are a little bit stricter.”
Franklin knows that his lack of experience is his biggest flaw, and he’s not ashamed to look to Blaine Gabbert and Costello for guidance.
“Obviously, they’re more experienced than I am,” he said. “They can help me with what kind of throws I need to make, how to read, how to react. Coming in, it’s not like I’m thrown in there and I’m on my own. They’ve been a really big help.”
The toughest thing for Franklin has been catching onto the faster pace of the game.
“I’ve definitely adjusted to the speed of the game,” he said. “I’m still a little bit slow, but I think I’ve been making pretty good decisions. My footwork is a little bit better, but it’s not as good as I want it to be.”
Yost agreed that Franklin has definitely increased the speed of his game, and he is also confident in the young quarterback’s on-field presence.
“He very seldom ever gets surprised by who he’s playing against or how fast they get on him,” Yost said. “I think his decision making is getting faster and quicker when he’s thinking through things. We can still progress.”
This definitely was visible in the scrimmage, where he took snaps with the No. 2 offense against the No. 1 defense and went 17-of-26 for 125 yards. The first few snaps he played, he was slower to release, but as he got into the rhythm of the game he released the ball more quickly and made more intelligent throws.
“When you get in there, everyone’s fast, everyone’s fresh,” Franklin said. “Then, as you go on, you still have the uptempo, but the guys are a little tired and you settle down some.”
Costello, who took fewer snaps than Franklin did against the top defenders, went 14-of-17 for 171 yards in the scrimmage. Although his play in preseason has been solid, Costello has fallen behind Franklin on the depth chart, and Yost knows knows that the junior must do more to improve.
“I think there’s definitely progress there, but it’s kind of a continuation of what we’ve got to still do more and more of,” Yost said.
Blaine Gabbert agrees that Costello has made progress leading up to the season.
“Jimmy’s really confident now in our offense,” he said. “He trusts his arm. He knows he can throw the football.”
Both Pinkel and Yost have identified the caliber of play necessary to become the team’s second-string quarterback, and they know exactly where both Costello and Franklin stand. Neither, Yost says, is quite ready to assume the role.
“James has made a lot of progress from the spring, but there’s still a lot to learn,” Yost said. “He’s still a true freshman, playing through his first two-a-days ... figuring out how we do things. He needs to get the tempo and knowing everything, and that’s a constant education for him. Jimmy, he’s been around here, so he knows those things. He’s been real consistent, but he’s had some up and downs. We want more ups than downs.”
For now, the two quarterbacks will have to be happy with continuing their competition. Pinkel says that though the team will release a new depth chart on Monday, the rankings at quarterback are still fluid. With two scrimmages remaining, all of the quarterbacks must work to play consistently and minimize errors.
“It’s just a focus thing, day in and day out,” Bliane Gabbert said. “You’ve got to be consistent playing with the ones and the twos to be a No. 2 quarterback.”
Both Costello and Franklin know this. Each knows that one scrimmage won’t determine his fate and one botched throw will not doom him to the No. 3 position. Both are aware that Pinkel says that neither is ready for the second-string role yet, and they’re doggedly focusing on improvement. Although coaches may not resolve the quarterback question anytime soon, leaving the players in suspense can only add to the level of play.
“I think the competition’s going to stay there for a while, because it’s good competition,” Yost said. “We can definitely get better at that position, but I think we’re playing better, those four guys… are playing at a higher level than we’ve had at that area before.”