Kenji Jackson was running up and down the stairs at Memorial Stadium during practice Wednesday morning. He’s done it before. He and Wes Kemp came to the stadium on hot afternoons earlier this summer to get ready for what they thought would be a scorching football camp.
“We’ve been blessed with nice weather,” Jackson said of the temperatures during fall camp. “So it’s really like we did that for nothing.”
The Missouri defense won the 11-on-11 portion of practice, dominating early on. The defensive line was able to reach the quarterback on numerous occasions, and they shutout the offense in the initial series. At one point, senior defensive lineman Dominique Hamilton forced a fumble.
One explanation for the defensive line’s performance could be the continuing movement of personnel on the offensive line. Two days after senior Elvis Fisher sustained a season-ending knee injury, his replacement, sophomore Justin Britt, sat out of the 11-on-11 scrimmage. The No. 1 offensive line on Wednesday consisted of senior Dan Hoch at left tackle, sophomore Mark Hill at right guard, senior Jayson Palmgren at center, senior Austin Wuebbels at right guard and junior Jack Meiners at right tackle.
The offense was not completely shut down, with senior quarterback Jimmy Costello tossing back-to-back red zone touchdowns to his tight end.
Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
Wednesday’s afternoon practice was cancelled. The team was planning to spend some time together with a trip to the movies. The choices of what to see were “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” or “30 Minutes or Less.”
Sophomore quarterback James Franklin says he had already seen “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and liked it. But, he wasn’t sold by his teammates’ description of “30 Minutes or Less.” He figured he'll see “Apes” again and might ruin it for his teammates by telling them when cool parts were coming up.
Not only is it not as hot as he anticipated, but Jackson hasn’t practiced for the past few days. His injury isn’t serious, just a strained hamstring, but it has kept him out of drills and 11-on-11 scrimmages. He ran stadium stairs Wednesday just to stay active.
Even when he’s not on the field, Jackson is leading by example.
“I try to have a positive attitude when I come out to practice,” Jackson said. “It’s two-a-days. Clearly you don’t want to come out here every day to practice, but it’s what you’ve got to do to be really good. I feel like they understand that. If they didn’t then, they do now. They understand that consistency and taking it day by day is what’s going to help them be a good safety.”
Missouri’s starting strong safety was named a senior captain last week, and his leadership is vital to one of the team’s youngest units: the safeties. Last season, Jackson ranked fourth on the team with 66 total tackles. He also intercepted two passes and forced a fumble.
He is the group’s only senior, and the only other upperclassman, junior Kenronte Walker, redshirted last season after transferring from the City College of San Francisco. He has never played a game for the Tigers and has been filling in at strong safety while Jackson has been sidelined.
Underclassmen will play a large role in Missouri’s defensive backfield. So far, though, there aren’t any strong indications to who will be starting beside Jackson when the Tigers open the season on Sept. 3. Sophomores Tavon Bolden and Matt White have each topped a depth chart at free safety this year. Bolden was ranked first after the spring game, but it was White at the top of the chart on July 22. Safeties coach Barry Odom is impressed by other players as well, including Walker and freshman Daniel Easterly.
Although the outcome of the position battle is still to be determined by the coaching staff, Jackson, despite the hamstring injury, has remained the constant. His leadership and guidance of the young players in his unit hasn’t been injured at all.
“He’s doing a great job,” Odom said. “It’s good, any time, at a position that you’ve got a guy who’s been in the fire, and he has for three years. He’s played, and he’s played at a high level. There are situations that he’s been in on the field that he can relate to and kind of help guys out. When they’re over on the sideline and another group is in, he’s doing a great job of giving those guys the knowledge that he has.”
It isn’t just on the field, either. Jackson makes sure his leadership role continues away from the stadium and practice facilities.
“He’s a very encouraging person,” Bolden said. “He always looks to encourage anybody through the good times and the bad, on and off the field.”
Jackson went out of his way to help Bolden last season. The then-freshman Bolden was having trouble getting to class on time. When the consistent tardiness started to affect others on the team, Jackson started driving him to class until he could find a more permanent source of transport.
Jackson and other older teammates are paired up with “little brothers,” younger players who are still living in the dorms. Older players help their new teammates find classes and give them rides, if needed. Jackson said he’s had some of the younger players on the team over to his house before to hang out, and he said once he even grilled them some steaks.
Freshman Ian Simon is Jackson’s “little brother” this season. Simon and Jackson are from the same hometown, Mansfield, Texas, and Jackson said he knew him a little bit before he came to Missouri. Jackson noted that Simon has impressed him during camp, easily learning coverages and communicating well. Jackson said Simon has more interceptions during camp than he does.
There are moments, though, when the younger players get the opportunity to guide Jackson.
“At times, I help him when he might have a bad play and he might blow up and get attitudinal," Bolden said. "I’ll be like, ‘Calm down, Kenji, calm down. You’ve got to think about it. You’ve got to be that leader and that example.’ I just help him keep his mind on straight sometimes.”
Jackson said his hamstring is feeling good, so his absence from drills and scrimmages might not last much longer. But the red jersey, given to players who are banged up, hasn’t kept Jackson from showing young players and the rest of his teammates what it takes to have success on and off the football field.
Wednesday, Jackson was keeping a watchful eye on his team from the highest row of seats on the east side of Memorial Stadium. After running up the stadium stairs, he decided to watch practice for a little while from a vantage point players rarely get to see.
“I’ve never really been up there and watched practice before,” Jackson said. “It’s a really good view up there.”