COLUMBIA — DWIs, broken bones, pulled hamstrings, domestic assaults, discipline — there are a lot of things that Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel doesn’t want to talk about.
Pinkel shrugs a bit when these hot-button issues come up at press conferences, and the frown lines on his face become more pronounced. In his review of the nonconference season, Pinkel would rather forget about his team’s brushes with the law and untimely injuries. There’s one subject, though, that he is happy to discuss, that makes a hint of a smile mingle with his tired expression. The performance of quarterback Blaine Gabbert is a pleasant topic for Pinkel.
“I think he’s doing really, really well,” he said. “He’s had a little adversity, and then he’s come back and made plays, which says a lot for him.”
In the Tigers’ first four games, Gabbert’s performance has been steady. With the exception of a shaky first half against Illinois and the two interceptions he threw against San Diego State, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior has played with confidence, and the summer conversation about his prospects in the 2011 draft continues. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper lists Gabbert as the No. 3 non-senior quarterback in the draft, and Todd McShay, also of ESPN, projects that he will be the No. 4 quarterback pick overall if he chooses to enter the draft.
So what are these projections based upon? Mostly Gabbert’s size and arm strength, but his coaches and teammates see something else that marks their quarterback as successful. Gabbert has reached a nice comfort level.
“I think he’s a lot more calm now,” running back Kendial Lawrence said. “Last year was like his first year starting, and everyone always has that nervousness.”
Gabbert has achieved that extra confidence through experience, but time on the field isn’t the only factor. Lawrence said the amount of time that Gabbert spends analyzing film and studying his opponents is impressive. It has allowed him to react more quickly on the field and to see the field better.
“It’s just like he’s more there,” Lawrence said. “He’s just calm with it, and he knows the scheme a lot more. He knows what to expect in any situation.”
Gabbert said his increased awareness is really helping the offense to work in sync, which has been a challenge at times. The biggest difference between this year and last, Gabbert said, is that he knows what to expect from the start of conference play and more challenging opponents.
“We have a bunch of guys returning now who are juniors and sophomores, and they got a bunch of experience last year,” Gabbert said. “We’re going into conference play knowing what to expect.
“I think I have a better idea how competitive it is week-in and week-out.”
Despite his teammates' praise, Gabbert’s numbers this season are no better than last year in some respects. He is on pace to throw for fewer yards than last year and to have fewer touchdown passes. However, if he continues being sacked at the same rate (four sacks so far this season), he will only be sacked 12 times compared to last season’s 19.
“Our passing game at times gets out of sync … whether it’s a protection breakdown a little bit or just the inability to play catch,” Pinkel said.
For Pinkel, playing catch is the key to his offense, and despite Gabbert’s increased experience, he still needs to work on connecting with his receivers. Despite this though, Gabbert’s completion percentage so far this season, 68.2 percent, is an improvement over last year’s 58.9 percent.
“I’ve said from day one to our offense, ‘You’ve got to be able to play catch,’” Pinkel said. “It sounds so fundamental, so basic, but you’re stopping yourself if you’ve got a guy open and you miss him or if the guy drops the football. That’s Missouri beating Missouri.”
Despite Gabbert’s few shortcomings, Pinkel said he’s happy with his quarterback’s performance thus far this season. Pinkel said the rest of the team’s performance hinges upon that of the quarterback, and he hopes Gabbert can continue to hold the offense together throughout conference play.
“The consistency of play of that position, you know it’s the greatest team sport in the world except for one spot, and that’s quarterback,” Pinkel said. “That guy’s got to produce, especially in our offense.”