COLUMBIA — Forgive Will Ebner if he doesn’t seem overly excited just yet.
The redshirt senior is comfortably settled as Missouri’s starting middle linebacker, possessing a thorough knowledge of the playbook and defensive schemes.
- One day after getting dominated by the defense, the Missouri offense won practice and earned back the black jerseys for just the second time in training camp. The offense looked sharp in a 1-on-1 drill with receivers battling to get open against defensive backs, then held on to win the 7-on-7 portion of practice.
- Freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham worked with the first and second team offense. After leading the scrimmage Thursday with six catches for 68 yards, Green-Beckham played well again Friday, limiting his mistakes and becoming more involved in the passing game. He dove for a touchdown during 7-on-7 drills after catching a ball on an out route. The deciding final period began with freshman running back Russell Hansbrough taking a short completion down the sideline for a 20-yard touchdown.
- After the defense had tied the score, quarterback James Franklin completed consecutive touchdown passes of five and 10 yards to receiver Gahn McGaffie, who was lifted up by teammates after taking hits and holding on to the ball each time. McGaffie has had a strong camp filling in for T.J. Moe, who has not fully participated because of a hamstring issue. On next play, linebacker Donovan Bonner stopped Kendial Lawrence on a run from the two-yard line and drove him backwards for a loss of several yards.
- The competition for the starting place kicking has become very close. Redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett came into training camp as the favorite, but redshirt senior Trey Barrow likely made up ground after Baggett struggled in Thursday's scrimmage and again Friday. During the team kicking, Baggett made only a 20-yarder and a 30-yarder, while missing 40-yard kicks from both the left and right hash marks. He later missed a 35-yard field goal. Barrow kicked the same number of field goals during the practice, missing only on a 40-yard attempt from the left hash. Coach Gary Pinkel said the competition will probably continue until the end of training camp.
- Out for all drills- Safety Braylon Webb, defensive tackle Lucas Vincent (ankle), defensive tackle Evan Winston (head), tight end Sean Culkin (finger), receiver Jimmie Hunt (foot), cornerback Kip Edwards (knee).
- Out for contact drills only- Linebacker Will Ebner (pinched nerve), receiver T.J. Moe (hamstring), receiver L'Damian Washington (shoulder), receiver Rolandis Woodland (toe), defensive tackle Matt Hoch (hamstring), running back Greg White (shoulder), right tackle Justin Britt (foot) and tight end Eric Waters.
He feels the healthiest he has in a year, able to fly around the field and demonstrate the physicality that made him an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention as a sophomore in 2009.
With the team’s first season in the SEC just around the corner, optimism abounds. Ebner is optimistic but guardedly so.
After all, he’s been here before.
A year ago, Ebner was also positioned as Missouri’s starting middle linebacker, feeling totally healthy after missing two games with a neck strain and battling a recurring foot injury throughout the 2010 season.
Then the optimism faded away.
Ebner suffered both a concussion and high ankle sprain in the Tigers’ opening win over Miami of Ohio, eventually missing enough time that the coaching staff decided to redshirt him and hold out hope for 2012.
It was the latest roadblock in a college career that has been equal parts pain and reward. For Ebner – known as one of the team’s big hitters – the hits just kept on coming.
Torn labrum. Strained neck. Broken foot. High ankle sprain. Concussion.
After being sidelined in 2011’s debut, Ebner found himself in a familiar situation, forced to watch from the bench while his best friends played.
“At times, you can feel distanced from the team because you’re not able to work with them and sweat with them,” Ebner said after practice on Friday. “And that’s what you’ve been doing for the past four years to get to the point where you are now.”
If Ebner, the focus of an uncanny string of bad luck, let his dejection get the best of him, no one would have been surprised. Instead he did the only thing he could do – study the game.
He may not have been a healthy football player, but he became a smarter one.
“You see things a lot more. You see things a lot differently, and you see things that you can’t see when you’re playing,” he said. “When you’re on the field, you’re focused on one thing. When you back off, you see more of a big picture.”
Ebner used the 2011 season to shadow and learn from Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel. After a while he became more than a dinged-up veteran for Missouri. He was an extension of the coaching staff.
“He coached us up on what we did wrong. He made us run to the football, made sure we did the little things right,” junior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “He told us to do the stuff that coach Steck would also tell us to do.”
Now that he’s made the transition back from the sideline to the field, Ebner’s missed 2011 is paying dividends. He always hit hard, but his intelligence and experience has become just as much of a weapon.
“He’s intelligent. He probably knows the defense better than I do. He’s been here for longer than I have,” Steckel said. The coach, in his 12th season at Missouri, might have slightly exaggerated Ebner’s tenure in Columbia.
“But his intelligence, getting everybody to line up in the right position, is his number one asset as a linebacker,” Steckel said.
From the outside Ebner’s missed senior season may seem like another cruel turn for a player who can’t seem to catch a break.
But out of the frustration came progress.
The redshirt senior, if he can stay on the field, should be a cornerstone of the Missouri defense this fall. And while he certainly knows how quickly optimism can fade away, a clean bill of health – as well as one more chance to make a difference – is reason enough to smile.
“In a sense, I’m glad it happened, because I’m able to come back and do it all again this year. I’m just having a lot of fun,” he said.
“(Coming back is) one thing that I’ll never change or regret. I’m glad that I’m able to do this with these guys, my best friends, and I’m having a lot of fun.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.