COLUMBIA — After nine days of watching players warm up and stretch, we finally got a chance to see the Tigers do something of substance on Saturday, when they held their first scrimmage of the preseason.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Here are some quick observations from the three-hour event, featuring a hodgepodge of quotes, highlights and thoughts:
• We got a nice little taste of how fast Missouri’s new offense can go right off the bat, as the first-team offense promptly marched down the field for an eight-play scoring drive. The offense was moving fast enough that it was difficult to keep a running play-by-play of the drive. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel deflected a question about it afterward, but it’s hard to imagine the Tigers not using that super-quick tempo this season.
• This was a very promising first scrimmage for freshman quarterback Eddie Printz, who completed 15-of-16 passes for 97 yards. Granted, Printz racked up those stats against the No. 3 defense, but completing 94 percent of your passes is difficult to do, no matter the competition.
By comparison, fellow freshman Trent Hosick went 3-for-10 for 21 yards with an interception. Hosick, however, did a little bit of damage with his legs, scrambling three times for 13 yards, but that was hardly a surprise. I covered the Staley graduate when he was in high school and he has always been a strong, decisive runner. If he ever gets the passing part down, watch out.
• There were a few massive hits Saturday. The most memorable was delivered by tight end Eric Waters, who has been surpassed on the depth chart by redshirt freshman Sean Culkin but took out his frustration on defensive tackle Matt Hoch. It was like a poor man’s version of this hit, just less vengeful.
I also remember linebacker Andrew Wilson getting a few good licks in, while linebacker Donovan Bonner laid out receiver Bud Sasser on a screen and safety Tyler Davis bowled over receiver Jaleel Clark on a passing attempt.
• Missouri used a two tight end formation in which walk-on Clayton Echard was attached to the line of scrimmage and Sean Culkin motioned toward his side like an H-back. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson said Echard could serve a role in short yardage this season due to his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame. Echard, for the record, also caught a pass for 15 yards.
• I didn’t notice a ton of targets for sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who caught one pass for 24 yards from quarterback James Franklin. Culkin, who is expected to play a major role in the offense, didn’t have a catch, either. But this was an open scrimmage, so it probably doesn’t matter. I expect both to see plenty of targets this season.
• I covered this in today’s K.C. Star story, but it was encouraging to see Franklin take the top off a defense by connecting with receiver Marcus Lucas for a 75-yard touchdown. Lucas had cornerback David Johnson beat by a mile, but after all the yapping I heard last season about Franklin’s unwillingness to throw deep – and there was some validity to it, just check the midway point of this article – it was good to see him do it.
• It was nice seeing E.J. Gaines pull down an interception Saturday. The Fort Osage graduate is a proven cover corner, someone who should contend for all-SEC honors this season, but there’s no doubt he needs to show better ball skills if he wants to improve his draft stock. Gaines told me this spring that he received a fourth-round grade by the NFL’s draft advisory board this offseason, and a big thing for him will be turning some of his pass breakups – and he’s had plenty the last two years – into interceptions.
Gaines, who stands 5 feet 10, got his interception Saturday by beating 6-foot-6 sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham on a jump ball thrown down the sideline by James Franklin. Given Green-Beckham’s massive size advantage, that should not have happened.
“That was a great play,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He went up and got it. If you’re coaching receivers, you (want him) to become a defender there and knock it down. You’re not the receiver anymore, all of a sudden it’s switched. Dorial, a young receiver, he’s got to go up and bat that down. But it’s a great play if you’re coaching E.J.”
Pinkel added that if the ball was thrown three yards further, it probably would have been a touchdown. Franklin didn’t dispute that.
“Just throw it further,” Franklin said, when asked what he should have done differently. “Dorial, it always looks like he’s jogging because he has such a long stride. So I was trying to time it up to the speed I thought he was going. But he was really moving, so I just need to throw that further and give him a chance.”
• Missouri’s first-team defensive line was very disruptive, racking up six sacks, two pass deflections and two tackles for loss. I particularly enjoyed seeing Missouri’s nickel pass-rushing formation, in which defensive end Kony Ealy shifted down to the three-technique defensive tackle and was replaced on the quarterback’s blind side by sophomore Shane Ray.
It’s a third-down look the Tigers used at times last season, and it would be a huge boost to the defense if Ray, a Bishop Miege product who played at 235 pounds last year and recently told me he’s now 245, can find a way to be productive.
• Speaking of Ealy, the big defensive end from New Madrid is hard to miss out there. He now weighs about 275 pounds (he was listed at 260 last season) and is eager to show what he can do. Ealy said he was told he’d likely be a third- or fourth-round pick by the NFL’s draft advisory board this offseason, so he chose to come back to school so he can work his way into the first round.
If he brings it every play, much like his buddy Sheldon Richardson did last season, I think he’ll have a chance. In addition to a sack, he also had a pass deflection and one impressive play in which he was left unblocked (by design) on a read option and proceeded to harass Maty Mauk into a fumble on the pitch, which resulted in a huge loss.
“I know my backside linebacker had the pitch man so I just made a play on the quarterback,” Ealy said. “Basically, I tried to make him decide. I got between him and the pitch man and also tried to make the tackle on the quarterback.”
• Junior receiver Gavin Otte, a 5-foot-10, 200-pound walk-on from Rolla, Mo., proved to be a favorite target for the backup quarterbacks, hauling in a team-high nine passes for 74 yards. It’s hard to imagine a walk-on making an impact with a receiving corps loaded with size and speed, but on this day, at least, Otte appeared to be a dependable target the backup quarterbacks were comfortable throwing to. That might be worth keeping an eye on as camp moves forward.
• Some quick depth chart notes: Junior Henry Josey and sophomore Russell Hansbrough got the majority of the work with the No. 1 offense at running back, though junior Marcus Murphy also received a handful of snaps. Max Copeland got the majority of snaps with the first-team offense at left guard, though Mitch Hall worked in some.
On defense, E.J. Gaines played a ton of nickel cornerback, with senior Andrew Wilson and sophomore Kentrell Brothers – who is locked in a battle with junior Darvin Ruise for the starting weakside linebacker job – starting at linebacker in that formation. The outside corners in the nickel were senior Randy Ponder and sophomore David Johnson.
• Johnson, by the way, had a bit of a rough day. After he was beat by Lucas for a touchdown, he ended the practice by getting bowled over by running back Marcus Murphy on a 17-yard gain. Solidifying the cornerback spot opposite Gaines is of the utmost importance, otherwise teams will just avoid Missouri's top corner altogether. While Ponder, the starter for now, had a couple of pass breakups, some youngsters need to step up for depth purposes.
Redshirt freshman John Gibson figured to factor inro this mix before a sprained ankle sidelined him for Saturday’s scrimmage, and while Pinkel praised freshman Aarion Penton – who caught his coaches eye by sticking with senior L’Damian Washington on a deep pass – it can be dangerous to rely on a true freshman at that position, particularly in the Southeastern Conference.
• Speaking of the defensive backs, I’m intrigued to see how quickly junior college safety Duron Singleton, who was just cleared to join the team over the weekend, can make an impact. He will start practicing with the team Monday but won’t be able to wear full pads immediately due to NCAA rules. I'm not sure if that means he won't be able to participate in Missouri's next scrimmage on Thursday, but I know he should be cleared for the Tigers’ third and final scrimmage on Aug. 22.
Singleton was a three-star recruit by Rivals but was listed as a four-star recruit and the No. 1 junior college safety in the country by 247 Sports. I have no idea how good the 6-foot-1, 210-pound New Orleans native is, but I’m intrigued to see if he can help a unit that needs to make more plays.