COLUMBIA— They call it the gauntlet. Four black conical tackling dummies with arms on the sides are lined up. A red one is placed behind them, waiting for the final hit from the defensive linemen. The bags waver but rarely fall.
Listen to the drill rather than watch it. As the linemen weave around the bags, they slap the protruding arms as hard as they can without losing their balance or momentum. A good hit makes a resounding smack. Lesser ones sound dull. A coach yells, "Finish strong."
- Wide receiver Gahn McGaffie and tight end Eric Waters both sat out of practice with minor, day-to-day injuries. McGaffie strained a hamstring, while Waters sprained his left big toe. Coach Gary Pinkel expected both to return soon.
- Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson was absent for a third consecutive day. The junior transfer from the College of the Sequoias is still waiting for a final eligibility ruling from the NCAA.
- Morgan Steward, who verbally committed to Missouri in March, was on hand for practice. Steward, a 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back at Staley High School in Kansas City, rushed for 1,555 yards last year during his junior season.
- Freshman quarterback Corbin Berkstresser continued to impress, completing a 40-yard pass to the corner of the end zone to sophomore receiver L'Damian Washington.
- Saturday's practice was the first with shoulder pads. Strong safety Kenji Jackson took advantage by nailing receiver Jerrell Jackson on a pass from quarterback James Franklin.
When it's Matt Hoch's turn, you hear a combination of synchronized smacks and grunts. The loudest of each come as he hits the red bag. He finishes strong.
Hoch is a 6-foot-5, 260-pound redshirt freshman from Harlan, Iowa. He committed to Iowa as a highly recruited defensive end but ended up coming to Missouri for the opportunity to play tight end and to play along side his older brother, starting senior right tackle Dan Hoch, his "No. 1 recruiter."
The first opportunity came and went last season. He was physical enough to be a good blocker, but he dropped some passes, something you can't do when you're competing against Michael Egnew, Eric Waters and Andrew Jones. He had no delusions. It wasn't happening.
The second opportunity simply evolved. He went to head coach Gary Pinkel, wide receivers coach Andy Hill and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.
"I can help you more on defense," he told them.
Like Brad Madison before him, he moved to defensive end under the tutelage of coach Craig Kuligowski. Now, every so often, he lines up against his brother.
This spring, he had a lot to learn. He played more linebacker than end in high school and needed to learn technique. He already felt more natural at the position than at tight end, but as Kuligowski said, even the most athletic players who beat guys strictly on ability in high school need to master the fundamentals and a different work ethic at the next level.
At first, he struggled in the gauntlet. His hits sounded like thuds instead of smacks.
He showed promise in the spring game, though, tallying two tackles. Then in the offseason he talked a little to Madison about his own transition and worked with starting defensive tackle Terrell Resonno, who felt the duty to tutor freshmen as former defensive tackle Ziggy Hood tutored him. Resonno showed him how to use his knees, hips and hands. He showed Hoch how to not only work hard but effectively.
Kuligowski said transitioning to defensive end isn't easy. Some guys will cry, "I don't think I match right, I don't want to do it." Not Hoch.
"I'm proud of him," Kuligowski said. "From spring ball until now, he's gotten a great feel for it. The sky's the limit for him."
Now Hoch is third string behind Jacquies Smith and Michael Sam. But Smith has watched Hoch do the gauntlet, and remembers when his own efforts yielded mere thuds.
"When we first start off with these drills, we all struggle," Smith said. "It takes time to get it, but he's a physical kid. He's got a lot of potential, and we're just trying to bring him along."
Hoch can wait. When the Tigers played, and lost to, Iowa in the 2010 Insight Bowl, Hoch felt no regret. He talked to Hawkeyes wide receiver Blake Haluska and linebacker James Morrison, fellow freshmen whom he had competed against in high school. They agreed that things were going well on both sides. They were where they wanted to be.
He enjoys the rare opportunities to line up against the first string offensive line and his brother. They've never been the type of siblings who beat up on each other or tried to out-compete one another. Dan Hoch knows he will get ragged on by others if his little brother gets by him, but probably not by Matt. When they crouch down and prepare to do battle, something goes unspoken between them.
"We give each other that look," Matt Hoch said. "It means (to) just do the right thing, don't do anything stupid. We've controlled our emotions since high school."
The coaching staff wants to get him on the field. He's been practicing long snaps on kicks and participates on special teams. Kuligowski says that Hoch has the opportunity to play, and even start, at defensive end this year.
For now, he works on the gauntlet. The second time through during Saturday's practice, the players spin around each tackling dummy. Hoch hesitates momentarily after the first black bag, but he regains his momentum. He grunts, then hits the next three progressively harder before tackling the red bag.
Kuligowski slaps him on the back. Matt Hoch finishes strong.