COLUMBIA — During preseason, they were tired.
After the team’s first few games, they were exhausted.
Kansas State (6-3, 3-3 Big 12)
at No. 20 Missouri (7-2, 3-2 Big 12)
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KTGER/1580 AM, KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: Fox Sports Net
MU coach Gary Pinkel is 4-5 vs. Kansas State and 1-5 vs. KSU coach Bill Snyder, who is 14-4 against Missouri overall.
Now, they’re just dealing with it.
The Missouri football team’s defense has had a tough couple of months. Most players knew that preseason practices would be difficult. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel is unforgiving in his demands, especially under the hot August sun. But they had no idea of the seemingly unending string of injuries that would cast a shadow on a season in which the Tigers have emerged as one of the top defenses in the Big 12 Conference.
The linebackers have been the hardest hit. Donovan Bonner tore his ACL in the first week of preseason practices and soon Will Ebner also sat on the sidelines with a strained hamstring. Almost as soon as Ebner recovered, Luke Lambert suffered first a hamstring injury and then a sprained knee. And to top it off, Ebner has been playing most of the season with a bone chip in his foot.
Members of the defense aren’t surprised, though.
“Injuries are part of the game,” cornerback Kevin Rutland said.
The linebackers aren’t the only group that has been plagued by injuries. Early in the season, safeties Jarrell Harrison and Jasper Simmons were out with knee problems, and star defensive end Aldon Smith missed three games with a broken bone in his leg. In Smith’s second game back, defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton ended his season with a broken leg. The hits literally keep coming, and the Missouri defense is doing it’s best to handle them.
“We can’t really complain about it,” linebacker Andrew Gachkar said. “We’ve just got to fight through.”
Gachkar, a senior, has proved indispensable on the defense in 2010. With his experience, he’s able to play all three linebacker positions, which has given some relief to fellow starters Ebner and Zaviar Gooden. Gooden, a sophomore, doesn’t have the versatility of Gachkar, and Ebner’s foot injury means that he needs a bit more rest than he otherwise would. For Gachkar, rest has become an unfamiliar concept.
“It’s difficult to play a whole game out there without getting some reps off,” Gachkar said.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s favorite saying when it comes to injuries is “move them over and move them up.” But sometimes doing so is more difficult than the catchy motto makes it sound. Making adjustments means relying on more and more inexperienced players.
Defensive end Aldon Smith said that it was at first hard to watch first-time starters Jimmy Burge and Brendan Donaldson step in for Hamilton after his injury, but that he’s confident in the young players.
“I think the first week was a little tough because it was their first time playing college football,” Smith said. “They’re getting the hang of it, I think, and I’m excited to see what happens.”
As much as the Tigers defense is trying to remain positive, the onslaught of injuries does sometimes discourage them — both the healthy players on the field and the ones recovering on the bench.
“It’s really hard,” Gachkar said. “They’re adding up. They’re piling up. You know, it seems like every week someone new is injured.”
Rutland, who sprained his ankle in the team’s loss to Texas Tech, said that watching his team lose from the sidelines was almost more painful than his throbbing lower leg.
“It hurts to have to watch a game instead of being in it and playing with your teammates,” Rutland said. ”You never want to have to sit out like that.”
Luckily for Rutland, he is healthy enough to return to the field on Saturday against Kansas State. For him, recovery wasn’t a process, it was a responsibility that goes along with all his other duties.
“This team’s about that (responsibility),” he said. “If something needs to be done, you get somebody to do it. I think if I could play D-line, I would.”
Rutland isn’t desperate. He’s just realistic. He knows that injuries lead to weaknesses and holes, and no matter how positive he and his teammates are, it’s hard not to feel a little discouraged.
Smith, who’s never one to ramble, said there’s only one way to describe the situation: “It sucks.”