COLUMBIA — Tight end Eric Waters was running along the line of scrimmage, heading towards the sideline as he looked back for the ball. The pass was coming in well in front of him and low at his knees. The 6-foot-4 junior from Mansfield, Texas turned upfield and reached down to grab the ball, securing it while staying on his feet.
About a minute later, Waters caught another low pass, this time laying out and going to the ground to secure the ball.
It was just a simple passing drill with no defense, but the catches impressed teammates and coaches, who praised Waters after the plays at the Missouri football team's second practice of training camp.
Waters is expected to replace tight end Michael Egnew, who graduated last year and was drafted by the Miami Dolphins. Through his first two seasons at Missouri, Egnew had seven catches for a total of 47 yards and no touchdowns. Then as a junior, he caught 90 passes for 762 yards and five touchdowns.
"His first year and second year, you just saw a guy that's a pretty good player. Getting a little bit better his second year. Then all of a sudden third year this guy is an All-American and you are going 'What the heck? What happened? Where'd this guy come from?'" Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said.
Pinkel said a combination of experience, physical development and mental toughness spurred the jump in production.
Much like Egnew's situation, Waters has not contributed very much in games heading into his third season. He has just two career catches for 46 yards and a touchdown.
Waters did not want to compare himself to his predecessor, though he said he tried to learn as much as he could from Egnew when the two used to room together on team road trips.
"I really learned how to practice hard," Waters said. "Just picked up little things as far as route running, what kind of moves to make, what to expect when I'm blocking off the line, what to look for, how to watch film. All of those different things because me and him were always the first ones to watch film before practice."
Waters is still recovering after injuring his knee in the spring. He says he is still only about 80 percent healthy, but hopes to be ready for the start of the season on September 1 against Southeastern Louisiana. Waters said he wants to be the best player he can be but is not necessarily trying to catch as many passes as Egnew, who saw his production decline last year when fewer passes went to the tight end position.
"We went with what was working," Waters said. "If you can kill them with the run game all day, by all means, run the ball. It wasn't about tight ends getting the passes. It's not about any of that."
Pinkel said a player could emerge as a star in any position, not just tight end. Pinkel praised senior defensive end Brad Madison, who played through several injuries last season including a torn labrum, a dislocated shoulder and a hyperextended knee.
"(His shoulder) kept coming out on him and they kept putting it back in. He didn't want to get it fixed," Pinkel said. "And you know, he wasn't the player he was his sophomore year, an all-conference player, and he knew it, but he just wanted to help the team."
Madison said he is finally healthy for the first time in about two years. He will play on the defensive line with Matt Hoch, who is listed at No. 1 on the depth chart at nose guard. Hoch started out as a tight end his freshman year. Pinkel said the coaching staff won't put a player at a position the player doesn't want to play, but they are always looking to find the best spot for guys to help the team improve.
"You are always, always on the cutting edge of trying to make yourself better. I talk to alumni groups all over that I assure them that we don't ever sit around saying 'we've been to so many bowls in a row,'" Pinkel said. "There is a lot of things we haven't done, haven't accomplished. And this year it's magnified a little bit because we went into a different league. We got a lot to prove, and we need to focus on what we need to do and all of that will take care of itself."
The team will practice with shoulder pads for the first time Saturday.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.