COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel looked tired on Tuesday.
All things considered, the Missouri football program is doing fine. Pinkel was able to hold his first spring practice, still in early March, outside at Memorial Stadium because of temperatures in the 70s. It’s still months away, but fairly soon his team will be playing in the Southeastern Conference. This summer, some new, young players will join the Tigers, including a certain kid from Springfield.
But behind Pinkel, standing in the shady corner of Faurot Field as the sun set, were a bunch of players pulling off red pinnies and others, like running back Henry Josey, who were not dressed for practice at all.
Half of the offensive linemen and nearly as many defensive linemen didn’t practice Tuesday, Pinkel said. In his career, he’s never had as many injured players the first day of spring.
“You do not have enough time in your life for me to explain all of our injuries,” Pinkel said.
Eight players, including Josey (knee) and starting defensive linemen Brad Madison and Sheldon Richardson (shoulder), will sit out of spring practices. Pinkel said there was a chance the later two might be able to return after spring break.
Other absences weren't as serious. Defensive end Braydon Burnett had the flu. Wide receiver Bud Sasser had a pulled hamstring. Offensive lineman Chris Freeman was shaken up after getting T-boned while driving in a parking lot earlier in the day. He got checked out at University Hospital and is fine, but he was held out of practice anyway.
On the bright side, sixth-year senior offensive lineman Elvis Fisher was back wearing a pinny. Fisher ruptured his patellar tendon last August and missed the entire season. Now he’s back participating in non-contact drills. He said he hoped to be able to participate in scrimmages in the coming weeks.
Fisher actually missed the past two years of spring practices with separate shoulder injuries. On Tuesday, he was all smiles, telling the best “old man” jokes he’s heard and touting the improvement of young offensive linemen who will make the transition in the trenches go smoother. Dan Hoch, Austin Wuebbels and Jayson Palmgren have graduated or will soon, and Fisher and returning center Travis Ruth are coming back from injuries.
Fisher mentioned how then-sophomore backup Justin Britt stepped in last season.
“Shoot he did a great job, better than anyone else could have,” Fisher said. “He’s played every position. It’s great having experience like that.”
Spring practices are all about those younger players who can perform the role Britt did last year, Pinkel said. For example, Mitch Morse will practice at center all spring to master the consistency of snapping and give them a prepared backup if Ruth gets hurt.
Many showed signs of improvement during the pre-bowl game practices, but it’s during spring practices that coaches evaluate whether they are prepared to actually take the field in the fall.
“The frustrating thing is that we’ve got good, young players with the ability that we can’t practice right now,” Pinkel said. “At the end of spring you (want to) say, ‘This guy’s ready to play, that guy's ready to play, this guy with a good two-a-days will be ready to play."
The pads come out this weekend. Pinkel hopes more players will be ready to put them on.
“Bottom line, you can be a second team player, but you’re not (necessarily) ready to play to win a championship in the Southeastern Conference.”