COLUMBIA — Corbin Berkstresser sees the hit before he feels it.
He sees his offensive line collapsing around him. The impact, sudden and violent, is both unavoidable and a few fractions of a second away.
Center Mitch Morse and right guard Jack Meiners, both starters in last week's loss against Vanderbilt, will miss the Alabama game with sprained medial collateral knee ligaments. Morse is expected to return after the bye week for the Kentucky game, while Meiners — who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Monday — could be out for a more extended period. To combat the losses, redshirt freshman Brad McNulty will make his second start at center and senior Max Copeland will start once again at right guard.
Dorial Green-Beckham has been reinstated by the football team this week and is once again second on the depth chart at the Y-receiver position. He was arrested last week for possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana, and a court date has yet to be set. Green-Beckham, who was the No. 1 high school recruit last year according to Rivals.com, has seven catches for 128 yards on the season and scored his lone touchdown on an 80-yard catch and run against Central Florida on Sept. 30.
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Standing in the backfield, in the eye of the storm, he has only one option: set your feet, release the ball and brace for impact.
Berkstresser, a redshirt freshman, took hit after hit late in the Missouri football team’s loss Saturday night against Vanderbilt. Often exposed behind an injured and inexperienced offensive line, he knew there would be times all he could do was make the pass, take the hit and hope his body didn’t break upon collision.
The contact, he says, is nothing new.
“I pride myself on that, being able to stand in there and throw the ball while I’m being hit. I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. It’s something that doesn’t really bother me anymore,” he said during Missouri’s weekly media day on Monday.
He paused, perhaps considering for a moment the Alabama defense standing across the line from him this weekend.
“Let’s just hope it stays that way.”
Whether it bothers him or not, the pressure will be there on Saturday – not just from the pass rush but also from the elevated stage. Berkstresser is set to make only his second career start, and this one happens to be on national television against the No. 1 team in the country.
To have any kind of success, he will have to be the kind of quarterback that Missouri recruited and had high hopes for coming out of Lee’s Summit a few years ago. The guy who went 9 for 30 last Saturday and had numerous balls batted down at the line, Berkstresser says, isn’t someone he recognizes.
“When I came in, it just wasn’t really me,” he said, speaking quickly. “It didn’t really feel right. But I’ll definitely be composed this week and just calm throughout the week and ready to go for the big game.”
“The big game” might not be a close one if Missouri can’t protect its quarterback. With James Franklin out for at least two weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee, Berkstresser has been once again thrust into the spotlight.
And Maty Mauk, the heralded true freshman from Kenton, Ohio, has been reluctantly named the backup quarterback. Mauk was prolific in high school, setting national records for passing yards (18,932), touchdown passes (219) and pass completions (1,353).
But while he might someday be the next great starting quarterback for Missouri, coach Gary Pinkel would prefer that day to be a little further down the road. It appeared certain Mauk would redshirt this season until Franklin was injured, forcing the true freshman to be on alert behind Berkstresser.
With a nationally ranked defense coming in and a quarterback who isn’t afraid to take a shot, that redshirt could be in jeopardy.
“I had one of my friends call me and say, ‘You’re going to have to burn Maty Mauk’s redshirt.’ I said, ‘If he helps our team win, that’s not burning it,’” Pinkel said Monday. “If he comes in for two plays and then doesn’t play for the rest of the year, then that’s burning it.”
If Missouri’s offensive line holds up, Mauk’s redshirt should be safe. That is, unless Berkstresser’s helmet pops off towards the end of a play, forcing him to temporarily leave the game.
But even then, Missouri will be prepared, Pinkel said.
“I’ve already had a zillion friends text me, ‘If a helmet pops off, what are you gonna do?’ We will have an answer for that,” Pinkel said. “I know that’s a major, major concern of everybody’s.”
While it seems more likely that receiver T.J. Moe – a high school quarterback – or running back Kendial Lawrence would take a direct snap in that instance, Pinkel wasn’t willing to give away any details.
His preference, of course, is for Berkstresser to stay upright the entire game.
And if he does go down, Berkstresser hopes at the least to take a few Alabama defenders with him.
The redshirt freshman quarterback has displayed a simple yet effective running style in his limited playing time so far. It involves him lowering his shoulder and bowling over smaller defenders with his 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound frame.
When asked to explain the way he runs, Berkstresser said that he doesn’t shy away from contact. Instead, he welcomes it.
“I like it, personally. Growing up, I played linebacker and every other position, just like every other kid did. Contact is fun,” he said. “Some contact hurts sometimes. But to be able to go get a first down for your team is nice.”
On Saturday at Memorial Stadium, Berkstresser hopes to be the one doling out the contact, rather than taking it.
But, just like in the fourth quarter against Central Florida, he knows the pressure will inevitably come. And so, heading into a game against one of the most feared defenses in the nation, is he having nightmares about Crimson Tide defenders rushing off the edge?
“No more nightmares than I usually do,” Berkstresser said, smiling wide. “But they’re definitely fast, like everybody says.”
If they’re fast enough to get to the quarterback, Berkstresser won’t duck or shy away. Contact, even against a defense as physical as Alabama’s, doesn’t scare him.