COLUMBIA — Just months ago, they were Blaine Gabbert’s men.
They gave him credit for the wins. They shouldered the blame for the losses. They made game-winning catches down the sidelines and blocked defenders as their quarterback ran into the end zone.
There were few surprises in Saturday's annual Black and Gold football game.
In the first half of the game, the first team offense and defense played against the second team offense and defense, and the second team began with an automatic 14-0 lead. In the second half, the entire offensive squad played against the entire defensive squad. For instance, the first team offense took the field against the first team defense, and the second team offense played against the second team defense.
The first half ended with the second team defeating the first team 21-10, and the second half — when the first team offense and defense play each other — ended in a 3-0 win for the offense. So without the automatic 14-0 lead, the first team outscored the second team 10-7.
Both touchdowns were credited to quarterback James Franklin, who began the game playing with the second team offense, but he and Tyler Gabbert rotated between the first and second teams. Running back Marcus Murphy scored the first touchdown of the game — for the second team — and wide receiver Brandon Gerau scored the first team's touchdown later in the second quarter.
Murphy saw significant playing time with the second team, and first team running back De'Vion Moore stood out on offense. Receiver T.J. Moe began the game strong with a 15-yard rush, but fumbled a pass from Gabbert in the first quarter and did not play for the rest of the first half.
Now, just a few months later, the Missouri wide receivers don’t know whose men they are. And the pressure is on.
The Tigers’ starting wide receivers — Wes Kemp, Jerrell Jackson and T.J. Moe — have a combined five years of experience as starters, and tight end Michael Egnew had a breakout All-America season in 2010. That experience can only help the team’s starting quarterback in 2011. Be it either James Franklin or Tyler Gabbert.
But with that experience comes an obligation.
“It’s going to be really important for those guys to play well,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel after Saturday's spring football scrimmage at Memorial Stadium. “You get a group of receivers that are experienced starters from a year ago, and if they get two or three drops, a new starting quarterback doesn’t need that.”
Consistency will be key. Fumbles, like Moe’s in the first quarter of the game, will be inexcusable. So will dropped passes. And the receivers know this.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to do good, run good routes and catch everything,” Kemp said. “We just want to make it as easy as possible (for the new quarterback).”
Kemp said he knows it will take time for Tyler Gabbert or Franklin to find their comfort zones. The communication, the relationship that the receivers had with Blaine Gabbert won’t instantly be there. While the starting quarterback works on becoming a more vocal leader, Kemp said he and the receivers are ready to pick up some of the leadership duties.
The quarterbacks are learning, though. With every rep, they’re picking up the nuances of each receiver and running back. The routes are becoming more natural, and so should the throws.
One thing that Franklin has picked up on is the value of eye contact. After a short pass in the second quarter of the scrimmage, Brandon Gerau was called down at the one-yard line. Gerau let Franklin know what to do.
“(Gerau) told me, ‘Hey, you better throw it to me to make up for that last one,’” Franklin said. “He made eye contact, and we joke around in practice that when receivers give you the eye contact, that means throw it to them.”
Tyler Gabbert said the depth and experience at receiver is one of the team’s best weapons. One glance at the box score from the scrimmage —a box score that listed 19 players with at least one reception — shows the sheer amount of targets that Franklin or Tyler Gabbert will have. Sure, that means they will have to learn more styles, develop more relationships, but it’s not a bad challenge to face.
“Our receiving core is just so deep,” Tyler Gabbert said. “There are lots of freshman guys like Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, all the way up to T.J. (Moe), Egnew. Tons and tons of weapons we have.”
Although Pinkel will lean on veterans such as Kemp, Moe, Egnew and Jackson for the consistency and leadership he knows his team needs, there's a large group of young receivers competing for playing time. Sophomore Marcus Lucas impressed throughout the spring, and players such as Gahn McGaffie and L’Damian Washington who saw limited playing time in 2010 have stepped up in spring practices, Kemp said.
“They’ve been a lot more consistent and improved this year,” Kemp said. “We’re looking for big things from them.”
Running back De’Vion Moore was most impressed with Lucas’ play. He said Lucas plays like a much older, more experienced player, and that’s what the team needs.
“He’s going out there and making plays that veterans are making,” Moore said. “If you can get young guys to go out and do that, it’s awesome.”
There’s a lot driving Kemp and his fellow receivers. They need a new mindset, one more focused on leadership. They need to play close to perfect, not only to give their quarterback the confidence boost he needs, but also to compete with the young players hoping for minutes. It might sound daunting, but to Pinkel, it’s simple.
“What’s important for them is to play their very best,” Pinkel said. “That will take the pressure off a new quarterback.”