COLUMBIA — After Donovan Bonner drops a ball during a drill, he has to do pushups. As teammate Will Ebner razzes him, the sophomore linebacker dutifully serves his punishment, smiles widely and gets back in line.
A year ago, Bonner would have been thrilled to be doing pushups. It certainly beats the rehab he was doing after tearing his ACL in the team’s first practice of the 2010 preseason. What looked like it was going to be a promising year was swept away in an instant.
Receiver Wes Kemp and defensive end Brayden Burnett wore red pinnies at practice Wednesday because of what team spokesman Chad Moller called a "viral" illness. There was no indication as to whether either would be able to participate in the team's final scrimmage on Thursday.
Ruth still in boot
It did not appear that starting center Travis Ruth would be able to scrimmage Thursday. His injured foot was still in a boot, and he did not participate in practice Wednesday, though coach Gary Pinkel would not officially rule him out. Pinkel declined to comment on the status of any injured players for Thursday's scrimmage, saying only that he and the team's medical staff would meet Thursday morning to determine who would be allowed to participate.
Interceptions highlight quiet day
With the temperatures in the 90s and humidity making things even more miserable, the team held a relatively light practice Wednesday. E.J. Gaines and Kenji Jackson made highlight plays with impressive interceptions against James Franklin and the rest of the first-team offense.
Final scrimmage Thursday
The preseason officially ends Thursday, with the team's final scrimmage to be held at 3:30 p.m. The Tigers will take Friday off and begin official "game week" preparations with a morning practice on Saturday.
But last season wasn’t a complete loss for Bonner. While he might not have been able to participate physically, he said he learned a lot about the linebacker position mentally. A safety in high school, Bonner used his time on the sidelines wisely to ease his conversion into the role of linebacker.
“He learned a lot being hurt and just sitting out. He got to see all of our mistakes,” fellow linebacker Zaviar Gooden said. “His intelligence grew a whole lot. He’s very knowledgeable about the position.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel tries not to treat players returning from injuries any different than the rest of the team, but at the same time, the mental toughness required to come back from a significant injury is not overlooked.
“You know that with any kind of serious injury it’s taken that guy a lot of hard work and courage to work himself back in and get himself back in shape,” Pinkel said. “You really have to honor that, but once they get here, they’re just like everybody else and secretly, you just pray that they can stay healthy.”
Bonner returned to practice this past spring and said he was so excited he even missed the scolding tones of sometimes-intimidating defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.
“He told me I wasn’t a freshman anymore,” Bonner said. “The first time he screamed at me coming back in spring practice, I was like, 'OK, it’s time to come back and do work.'”
Now, he hears Steckel every day at practice. Bonner, a Dallas native, says his knee has completely recovered and that he is ready to fulfill last year’s expectations. With the linebacking corps ravaged by injuries in 2010, it’s likely Bonner would have found himself on the field quite a bit, had he himself been able to stay healthy.
After receiving a medical redshirt for last season, Bonner is considered a sophomore, and is listed second on the depth chart at strong-side linebacker. He has turned heads at times this preseason with his combination of speed and size. As a converted safety, it’s Bonner’s ability to keep up with receivers in the open field that is most impressive. During a few 11-on-11 scrimmage plays Wednesday, even tailbacks were having trouble getting too far away from Bonner on pass plays.
Gooden spent a lot of time with Bonner off the field during his injury and has spent plenty of time on it with him during this preseason, and he seems to be confident in his teammate and friend.
“He’s going to surprise a lot of people,” Gooden said. “He’s going to come and ball, basically.”