COLUMBIA — It was only the third play of the scrimmage. With the first-team offense backed up inside its own 5-yard line, quarterback James Franklin dropped back to pass on third down. He fired to his right, looking for wide receiver T.J. Moe, but instead the throw found linebacker Will Ebner, who took the interception into the end zone.
The play was the kind that gets players noticed when they’re battling for a starting job. That’s exactly where Ebner, a senior, and Luke Lambert, a sixth-year senior find themselves during Missouri’s first scrimmage of the preseason.
Their situations are similar. Both find themselves looking for more this year after past disappointments. Lambert received an extra year of eligibility after his past two seasons were ruined by shoulder and knee injuries. Ebner’s 2010 was blemished by a preseason DWI arrest and injury issues of his own. However, neither wants to put pressure on himself to make up for any lost time. They don’t define themselves by what happened in the past, preferring only to look forward.
“I’m not out to prove anything,” Ebner said. “All that stuff that’s happened is in the past, it’s over with and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The two have been virtually dead even in camp this season at the middle linebacker position, sharing reps with the first team during practices and Saturday’s scrimmage. Ebner turned heads Saturday with an interception and a sack, but Lambert had his turn in the spotlight as well.
Late in the scrimmage, he and Moe got into a scuffle at the end of a play. Punches were thrown, but it appeared afterward that the two made peace, and they had no further incidents. No one in the crowd was quite sure how it happened and as it turns out, neither did the combatants.
“I don’t really know what started my fight, but my helmet came off and I was getting punched so I had to fight,” Moe said. “We don’t even know how it started, you can’t continue being mad about something when you don’t even know what you’re mad about.”
Lambert and Ebner compete hard on the field, but off of it they are good friends. No one’s feelings are hurt by what happens between the white lines, it’s just two guys competing hard against one another for the right to start.
“When you’re on the field, you’re on the field and when you’re off the field, you’re off the field. It’s just an on-off switch, that’s what it comes down to,” Ebner said.
While their on-field and off-field attitudes might differ, the competition doesn’t end when practice is over. The two, along with defensive end Brad Madison, often play pool in their free time.
“(Will) and Brad have the upper hand right now in pool right now,” Lambert said. “We have a great friendship and we challenge each other to get better.”
Luckily for Lambert, coach Gary Pinkel probably doesn’t let pool determine his depth chart. That will be determined by interceptions rather than scratches and tackles instead of trick shots. One thing is for sure, Lambert and Ebner will compete until the end.