Missouri football’s first full scrimmage of 2019 fall camp was deliberately mundane as prospective starters and backups were introduced to real-game scenarios on Saturday, the three-week mark before the season opener at Wyoming. The secondary, showcasing unexpected depth, stood out as the most impressive position group — but with an asterisk.
These Tigers have arguably more preemptive potential than any other Barry Odom team in his first four years as Missouri’s head coach. Even without Drew Lock for the first time since Odom took over in 2016, a lot of that potential derives from the offense and specifically the quarterback position, with graduate transfer Kelly Bryant bringing his experience from Clemson.
But the offense lagged in Saturday’s scrimmage. There were plenty of issues; notably, the frequent punctures in pass protection where new offensive line starters Larry Borom and Hyrin White line up. More so, Bryant struggled to complete passes, though in large part because the play-calling variety was, in Odom’s words, “really, really vanilla.”
That’s the asterisk. And it's a fair excuse. Not to mention Missouri was sidelining senior slot receiver Johnathon Johnson (foot) and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (knee). Side note: Odom said he’d have a status update about the recovering Okwuegbunam for reporters after Monday’s practice, but resting him Saturday was just a safety measure.
But even with the pass game handicapped in multiple ways, it’s hard to ignore the impressions made by Missouri’s defensive backs. That group was also missing a key starter in strong safety Tyree Gillespie (hip), but it didn’t slow anyone else down. Senior safety Ronnell Perkins intercepted Bryant at one point.
“Those guys do a great job disguising, making plays, great job of recovery hash to hash,” Bryant said. “They’ve been giving me tough looks.”
The cornerbacks, whose growth has especially encouraged coaches throughout the offseason, seem to have progressed so much that there’s an unexpected position battle now taking place. Sophomore Jarvis Ware was brought up to play with the 1s (starters) during the scrimmage, and he nearly intercepted Bryant twice, still knocking both passes down.
“You saw Jarvis Ware out there stepping up for us today, making a lot of plays,” senior cornerback DeMarkus Acy said. “You’re excited to see it. He’s not relying on his athleticism as much. He’s been taking the ropes as far as watching film, building his body, building his mind.”
Odom said after the scrimmage that both Ware and the established starters, Acy and Christian Holmes, “would be labeled as starters.”
“Who knows who will be the first guys on the field for the first snap,” Odom said. “All three have earned that.”
Acy was a second-team All-SEC corner last season, and Holmes may have quietly been even better after becoming a starter halfway through the season. He had a propensity for pass break-ups on third and fourth-down plays.
They all operate under David Gibbs now, Missouri’s new defensive backs coach hired during spring camp. Asked after the scrimmage how Gibbs has impacted the secondary most, Holmes said, “You saw it out here today,” referring to the more aggressive angles they’ve been taught to defend from while the ball is in the air. The end goal is to force more turnovers.
“He makes sure we’re going for the ball almost every play at practice,” said Adam Sparks, once a starting cornerback whose 2018 season was injury-plagued. “If we see the ball, we gotta get the ball, that’s our motto. Every time the receiver catches it we’re stripping at it. Running back, tight end, anybody that has it, we’re punching at it. I see it more this year than ever while I’ve been at Mizzou.”
Gibbs’ button-pushing philosophy has energized Missouri’s defensive backs, who are eager to talk about new techniques for forcing turnovers. The safeties and cornerbacks, basking in their newfound depth, were plenty effective at fulfilling Gibbs’ promise and disrupting Bryant on Saturday, inspiring more optimism than any other position group.
The nagging asterisk lingers, though, and there’s no true way to comprehensively evaluate anyone — playbook-depleted offense included — until August 31 in Laramie, Wyoming.