COLUMBIA — It stops everything.
Receivers are catching passes, cornerbacks are backpedaling and defensive linemen are tackling each other, but when the sound of equipment director Don Barnes’ blue air horn wails, players, coaches and support staff cease their current actions.
Red jersey brigade
The list of injured Tigers has swelled. Twelve players, including seven starters, wore red pinnies indicating they were not able to fully participate in practice Saturday. Here's the breakdown.
- Travis Ruth, C — strained Achilles
- Jerrell Jackson, WR — strained hamstring
- Kerwin Stricker, WR — strained hamstring
- Eric Waters, TE — strained hamstring
- Brad Madison, DE — strained shoulder
- Matt White, S — sprained ankle
- Jacquies Smith, DE — sprained big toe (turf toe)
- Kenji Jackson, S — strained hamstring
- Will Ebner, LB — concussion
- Tavon Bolden, S — undisclosed
- Wesley Leftwich, WR — undisclosed
In addition, coach Gary Pinkel announced that freshman linebacker Brandon Durant will have surgery to repair a torn ACL. He will miss the 2011 season.
As of Saturday, it looked like T.J. Moe was the frontrunner to take on the team's punt returning duties while Henry Josey continued to be first in line to take kick returns. Gahn McGaffie and Jimmie Hunt also took punts while Hunt, Moe and Kendial Lawrence took turns fielding kicks after Josey.
Offensive line shuffles
Redshirt freshman Anthony Gatti took reps at left tackle with the first team offensive line Saturday. Sophomore Justin Britt had previously been manning that position.
Practice ended with a scuffle between senior tailback De'Vion Moore and redshirt freshman cornerback Tristen Holt. The incident lasted longer than a typical camp fight because the rest of the team and coaches were gathered at midfield for post-practice stretching. Eventually a coach was able to separate the two.
But instantly, they are moving again. To the untrained eye, it first looks like chaos. Players run off in different directions, coaches follow and in what seems like no time at all, another period of practice begins. Offensive linemen are now blocking defensive linemen and cornerbacks are lined up against wide receivers. Yet another seamless transition is complete.
Each Missouri football practice is broken up into 18 periods, all meticulously planned so that more than 100 players can maximize the use of their practice time. With an NCAA mandate limiting teams to 29 preseason practices, efficiency is paramount. Simply put, each team has the same amount of practice time. What they do with it is what makes the difference when the season begins.
“We like to think we practice as good as anyone in the country so that we can improve as good as anyone in the country,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “We’re very, very organized in what we do. Everything is to the minute.”
Preseason practices like Saturday’s are planned before camp even begins, once the coaching staff returns to campus in late July. The plan itself is a single 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper, divided into the 18 periods each day. Each period describes what each position group will do and where they will do it.
For 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 drills, otherwise known as “team periods,” the plan is even more detailed. In small print, it contains information like how many repetitions first-string and backup players will get, what yard line the plays will start on, which script of plays the team will be using and the all-important question of whether the drill will include full-contact tackling or not.
The sheet itself was designed by Pinkel’s mentor, former Washington coach Don James, and other than some minor tweaks over the years, it mirrors the original.
When a period ends, Barnes signals with the horn. There’s no mistaking what it means. It drowns out the incessant sounds of coaches' whistles and even the booming voice of defensive coordinator Dave Steckel’s commands.
“They blow the horn, and you’re running to where your next spot needs to be,” senior Luke Lambert said. “If you’re not there, there’s someone on you making sure you’re getting there.”
The precise efficiency of a Missouri practice takes adjusting for new players. Some pick it up in a matter of weeks. Others take longer. Senior Brandon Gerau said it took him a whole semester to get the system down. In the end, though, they think it’s worth it to learn.
“If you’re going to come out here and just stand around, then what’s the point of coming to practice?” Lambert said. “You have to make sure you’re doing something the whole practice, that’s the way to get better.”
Players don’t ever see the full practice plan. Before practice, their position coaches may run them through what’s going to happen, but much of the job of directing the masses falls to student assistants, who tell players where their next drill will take place. Everyone is a cog in the wheel.
That includes Barnes, who said it’s rare for someone as senior as himself to blow the horn. Normally, he said, it falls to someone lower on the food chain.
“A lot of places, you don’t see the directors on the field,” Barnes said. “Here you’ve got your director of athletic training, your director of strength and conditioning and your director of equipment right there next to (Pinkel). He’s got all of his lieutenants right there with him.”
And though at times it might seem like Barnes’ horn gives him the most power of anyone at practice, he knows better.
“All I have to do is look to my side and I see the most powerful man in the world,” he said. “Coach runs everything, and he’s in charge of everything, and that’s never a question mark. Ever.”
As for the horn itself, it’s going to leave a lasting mark on at least one player.
“That’s going to be a scar for the rest of my life,” Lambert said. “Every time I hear an air horn, I’m going to jump up and get moving.”