Every time Brad Smith scampers out of the backfield, Tiger fans collectively hold their breath.
They’re anticipating Smith breaking tackles with another dazzling run and fearing that the star quarterback might take a hit that knocks him out of the game.
While Smith routinely makes breathtaking runs, he has left only one game with an injury. Last season, against Ball State he left the game at halftime with a concussion.
Sonny Riccio, then the backup quarterback, ably filled in for Smith in leading the Tigers past the Cardinals, 35-7. Riccio completed 7-of-12 passes for 59 yards and a 14-yard touchdown to Victor Sesay. Riccio, however, transferred to Delaware after the season, leaving untested Brandon Coleman as the backup quarterback, the most difficult position on the field.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has some experience in coaching quality quarterbacks, with seven former signal callers playing in the NFL; Hugh Millen, Chris Chandler, Cary Conklin, Mark Brunell, Billy Joe Hobert, Damon Huard and Chris Wallace. With that experience, Pinkel said the position is the most complex position in football to learn with the quarterback having to call protections, read the defense and make changes based on the defensive coverage.
“They have to analyze all that, it is truly remarkable,” Pinkel said. “That’s what I always thought was so fun about coaching quarterbacks, was the complexity of it. But you know, it is much more complex than when I was coaching quarterbacks 13 years ago.”
The position can become more difficult when a young backup is suddenly thrust into the lineup by an injury. Coleman said the experience of playing an entire quarter against Ball State helped him stay sharp.
“It was exhilarating,” Coleman said. “I haven’t really been able to play in a game like that since high school. Because when I got to play against Arkansas State, it was right at the end of the game. So I was just excited to be able to get out there and contribute to my team.”
Coleman played in two games last season, taking snaps against Ball State and Iowa State. He did not attempt a pass, however, until this year’s opener against Arkansas State.
The Tigers’ quarterbacks coach, David Yost, said the opportunity for Coleman to play early in the season was important for both the sophomore quarterback and for the team to gain confidence in his abilities on game day. Coleman is in his third year as a Tiger and until the Arkansas State game, he had not been tested in a game.
Those brief appearances were not enough time for Coleman to be challenged, and so he had to take advantage of practices to stay prepared. Unlike the NFL, where starting quarterbacks take close to 80 percent of practice reps, Yost said Coleman and Smith get the same amount of practice time for the Tigers.
“He gets all the same plays, all the same reps against the scout defense each week as Brad,” Yost said. “Being the number two guy, you’re in a position where you have to mentally be in a game, mentally get yourself ready with the high likelihood that you won’t play in the game, but you have to ready within one snap.”
Yost said it is difficult to prepare as a backup, but Coleman has been mature and focused enough to handle the transition.
The equal reps allow Coleman to be just as prepared as Smith. Coleman said he practices as if he was the starter by putting in extra work so the Tigers can count on him if he is forced into action.
“I just take every rep seriously in practice, every time we watch film, I take film seriously and I just make sure I am doing every thing I need to do,” Coleman said. “I just prepare like I’m the starting quarterback.”
Coleman, while not getting the reps with the No. 1 offense like Smith, said he does everything Smith does in preparing for the games and the two give each other advice and make sure they understand what the defenses are showing.
“Everything Brad does, I do; throwing after practice, I make sure I get that done,” Coleman said. “I just try to do a little bit more, so I know my team can count on me, if they need me.”
Yost said the two quarterbacks room together on the road and the extra time the two spend together allows them to be better prepared once the game starts. Yost said they ask each other questions to gain a better understanding and that has allowed Coleman to be ready for his spot duty thus far, but he still has yet to be tested in a close situation.
“He went in and played very well and…going into that situation is much different than going in a game that is nothing-nothing or going in a game where you’re down by seven or 14 at some point,” Yost said. “So he has not really faced any true pressure in that way or stress in that way.”
While the game experiences he has faced have not been pressure situations, Coleman said the quarter against the Cardinals was important to show he can play against another team.
“It’s a big difference because it’s faster and when you’re out there, it just shows you how critical your preparation is,” Coleman said. “I feel like I prepared real well for the game and I was able to go out there and give my team some production. I feel like I’m a lot better because to be able to get out there and actually do it is way better than any practice situation, I think.”