COLUMBIA — Tyler Hunt looked like a walk-on freshman at times during the second preseason scrimmage Thursday.
There was the hard pass from fellow freshman Corbin Berkstresser during warm-ups that went through his hands, hit his chest, bounced off his face mask and fell back through his hands again. Then, after his first series, the running back needed the assistance of a coach to readjust his helmet straps.
Quarterbacks not named James Franklin had a little difficulty hanging on to the ball. Senior Jimmy Costello threw an interception early in the scrimmage to senior cornerback Trey Hobson. Later, sophomore Ashton Glaser fumbled trying to escape defensive pressure, and freshman Corbin Berkstresser threw a pair of interceptions, one to senior linebacker Tony Randolph and another to Hobson. Berkstresser was also reached and sacked by a defensive lineman late in the scrimmage, forcing a fumble.
Department of Defense
The pressure on the quarterbacks showed the strength of the defensive line. Players were consistently reaching the backfield. Freshman defensive end Kony Ealy batted down a James Franklin pass with a towering leap, and sophomore defensive end Michael Sam and senior defensive tackle Terrell Resonno each had impressive tackles in the backfield. At one point, senior defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton blocked a field goal attempt.
Missouri defensive backs were focused on the quarterbacks, nearly intercepting passes on numerous occasions, aside from the three interceptions that were thrown. Balls were tipped all morning long, but each side benefited from the extra contact on the ball. Senior wide receiver Wes Kemp tipped a pass that was caught by junior running back Kendial Lawrence inside the five-yard line, and Hobson's second interception came off a tipped pass by junior linebacker Zaviar Gooden.
Coach Gary Pinkel was pleased with his defense but said there was still room for improvement.
“You have to look at the consistency of the No. 1 defense,” Pinkel said after the scrimmage. “The offense drove all the way down the field, and then they stopped them for a field goal. Second shot, held them down there. We can be better. The urgency is getting better because we’re running out of time.”
Big plays on offense
There were flashes of brilliance from the Missouri running backs. Lawrence broke off a 60-yard touchdown run after receiving a big block from fellow running back, junior Jared Culver. Pinkel continues to be pleased with how Lawrence has played during camp but said senior De’Vion Moore and sophomore Henry Josey will also play once the season begins.
Freshman running back Tyler Hunt also impressed, running over a pair of defenders. Both Franklin and freshman running back Greg White found the end zone for rushing touchdowns.
The most electrifying play from the offense came toward the scrimmage's end on a run after the catch by junior tight end Steven Drain. The play began with a botched snap, but Glaser picked the ball up and rolled almost all the way to the right sideline before completing a pass to Drain, who ran down the field, breaking tackles and dragging defenders before finally being brought down at the one-yard line.
The coaches had the team close the scrimmage with a two-minute drill, ending in a Grant Ressell field goal.
Get well soon
After the scrimmage, Pinkel said the training staff is talking about the possibility of some injured Tigers returning to practice next week. Pinkel said senior wide receiver Jerrell Jackson, senior safety Kenji Jackson, junior center Travis Ruth and junior defensive end Brad Madison could be back Tuesday.
But when he stepped onto the field, it was different. On his first play with the fourth-string offense, Hunt caught a screen pass, ran a few paces down the right sideline and lowered his shoulder as defensive back Ernest Payton crashed into him. Hunt won. Later, he nearly hurdled defensive back Tyler Davis on one play and took a pitch down the sideline, dodged a defender and ran into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.
It looked like this was where he belonged, which is fitting because that's what Hunt has thought for a while now.
When director of football recruiting Nick Otterbacher invited Hunt to walk on in late July, he gave the Westran High (Huntsville, Mo.) graduate a day to decide. Considering what Hunt had to give up, the deadline should have been stiff.
Hunt throws a baseball more than 90 mph. If not for an elbow injury, Hunt would have easily shattered the state strikeout record (454) and would have been drafted high in the MLB draft. After recovering from the injury, he planned to spend a year at Meramac Junior College in Kirkwood, Mo., and go pro next year.
At MU, Hunt wouldn't be playing quarterback, the position he played when he threw for 1,821 yards while leading Westran to the state championship last season. And at least for now, he wouldn't be compensated with free tuition, much less a six-figure (or larger) contract.
Yet the decision was easy. He didn't need a day. He didn't even need a few minutes. Out of respect for his family and coaches, he discussed it with them first.
But really, Hunt could have answered right there over the phone.
"It was always in the back of my mind: 'Man, I want to play football at Missouri,' " Hunt said. "This is my love. As soon as I got the call, it was already decided."
Between his freshman season and the moment Hunt took the field at Edward Jones Dome last fall, the Westran football team had gone from a 1-9 afterthought that had never won a playoff game to an undefeated contender for the state championship.
Westran lost 22-21 in overtime to Valle Catholic. It wasn't the dream conclusion to the playing days of Hunt's favorite sport he had hoped for.
A few months later during basketball season (when Hunt also excelled), he found out that an elbow injury suffered during the football state playoffs was worse than he had thought. His ulnar collateral ligament was almost completely torn — or, as St. Louis Cardinals doctor George Paletta Jr. told him, "hanging on by a thread."
They mulled Tommy John surgery, a procedure that replaces a ligament with a tendon from somewhere else in the body. Without it, Hunt had less than a 15 percent chance of the ligament healing by itself. His pitching days might be over.
Hunt didn't get the surgery, but by late spring, the ligament healed. He began pitching for the Westran baseball team, ended his career with 413 strikeouts and started hitting the low 90s on the radar again. That summer, he joined the St. Louis Outlaws travel team affiliated with San Francisco Giants scout Doug Lohman.
One of the tournaments was in Las Vegas, and Hunt walked down the Strip with his teammates in awe. More and more, he was getting his speed back. This baseball thing seemed to be working out for him.
But that voice in his head was still there.
On Thursday, Hunt ran for 23 yards on four carries and caught three passes for 18 yards. With at least six running backs ahead of him on the depth chart, Hunt is realistic enough to know he probably won't get playing time this season. That's OK. This is where he wants to be.
"He wants to contribute in any way possible," junior running back Jared Culver said. "He's a great guy, eager to learn, asks questions all the time. He looks great out there."
Transitioning from a town with approximately 1,500 people to Missouri can be tough, and Culver said Hunt looked nervous. But he also said all the other freshmen looked the same. Running backs coach Brian Jones said Hunt hasn't been overwhelmed.
"He's fit right in," Jones said. "He's well-liked and a hard worker who has earned respect."
Hunt isn't sure he has completely given up baseball. He said he might pitch in the offseason and maybe "try to get a couple tryouts here and there."
But baseball was always something he happened to be really good at. Football is the sport he loves, and he's not half-bad at that, either.
"I always said if I get one shot, I'd take the opportunity," Hunt said. "They gave me a shot, and I had to make the best of it."