Missouri football enters the season with a true freshman starting at free safety.
The was perhaps the biggest revelation from the Tigers’ first depth chart, which was released Tuesday ahead of Saturday’s season opener against Missouri State at Memorial Stadium.
Jordan Ulmer (6-2, 195), who signed with Mizzou in February out of Belleville, Mich., edged junior Cam Hilton for the starting job with his consistency throughout camp and during scrimmages.
“I don’t think I’ve ever started a true freshman in the secondary, but he’s also not like your average true freshman,” Tigers secondary coach/co-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said of Ulmer.
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Midway through camp, MU coach Barry Odom and his staff began raving about Ulmer, who credited his rapid adjustment to diligent film study of practice.
Ulmer also said seniors Thomas Wilson and Anthony Hines and sophomore Ronnell Perkins have served as mentors since his arrival in Columbia.
“He’s consistent and a good tackler,” senior starting strong safety Anthony Sherrils said. “He’s a long, rangy guy and he’s poised. He stays composed in situations. Coach put him in a lot of stressful situations, and he attacks it every time.”
Walters said Ulmer was intentionally placed in high-stress, high-pressure situation, like two-minute drills and third-down drills, with the first and second string throughout camp.
“I worked hard,” Ulmer said. “It was 50/50, if I played really good the second scrimmage, that I would be starting. So, I wasn’t really surprised with it really.”
Ulmer’s ascendance did surprise Odom a bit.
“He’s got maybe a little better feel for the game than I thought he would and has not, up to this point, really put himself in a stress situation in coverage,” Odom said. “He’s always kind of been in control and I like his demeanor. I like the way he plays — really, really physical.”
Walters marveled at how quickly Ulmer acclimated to Mizzou’s defense, how disciplined his eyes are on the back end, and said he has ideal size and is a fluid athlete.
Hilton and Wilson also will play alongside Sherrils and Perkins, but Ulmer’s been the training camp revelation.
“He graded out the highest in the (defensive backs) room both scrimmages,” Walters said. He’s been the most consistent, so he deserves it.”
Still, it’s a gamble starting a true freshman as the last line of defense.
“I asked him the other week if he was going to be nervous and he was like, ‘Coach, for what? To play football. No, it’s just football,’ ” Walters said. “So, you like that attitude.”
There will be some “freshman hiccups” and Ulmer needs to be more vocal, Walters said, but “we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the product he’s been able to put on the field throughout training camp and I look forward to him having a good career.”
Tightly packed tight end group
If there was a bigger depth-chart surprise, it was senior Jason Reese claiming the first-team spot among tight ends with redshirt freshman Albert Okwuegbunam and junior Kendall Blanton listed as co-backups.
Odom cautioned that being atop the depth chart doesn’t necessarily mean a player will receive more snaps, but praised Reese as a leader during the offseason and for his development.
“Reese has done a great job and has a little more experience than the other couple of guys in that room,” Odom said. “He’s performed very well during camp, but Albert and Kendall are going to play a whole lot. … There will be plenty of reps to go around for all three of those guys.”
Eight freshmen in line for snaps
Four true freshmen — defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside, defensive end Chris Turner, cornerback Adam Sparks and Ulmer — made Mizzou’s initial depth chart.
Four others are in line to play in 2017.
Odom said running Larry Rountree will play and linebacker Jamal Brooks has a role on special teams, while linebacker Aubrey Miller and safety Joshuah Bledsoe made the special teams two-deep and will see the field, though perhaps not in the opener against Missouri State.
Six starting linebackers?
There are no clear-cut starters at any linebacker spot, if Missouri’s depth chart is to be believed.
Sophomore Cale Garrett and senior Eric Beisel are co-starters at middle linebacker, while junior Terez Hall and senior Joey Burkett are co-starters at weak-side linebacker with juniors Kaleb Prewett and Brandon Lee listed as co-starters at strong-side linebacker.
“We feel like all six of those guys can be a starter or are going to play fairly close to evenly,” Odom said. “Some of it depends on what personnel grouping we get on the first snap with how we match it up. It could be a combination of a lot of different ways there.”
Beisel emerged as the Tigers’ emotional leader during the offseason, but he’s been eclipsed by Garrett during camp.
Both will still play, but a strong camp by Burkett also muddied the waters, and a lingering hip injury for Prewett, a Kansas State transfer, kept the competition close with Lee.
More offensive depth details
Two starting positions on the offensive line were settled.
Redshirt freshman Trystan Castillo is listed as the starting center, but Odom said sophomore Jonah Dubinski, a former walk-on from Columbia Rock Bridge High who earned a scholarship during training camp, also will play.
Sophomore Tre’Vour Simms is the starting right guard, according to the depth chart, ahead of sophomore and Blue Valley graduate A.J. Harris. Mizzou offensive line coach Glen Elarbee compared Simms to the eclipse.
Senior Adam Ploudre, who is a junior and Lee’s Summit West graduate Kevin Pendleton’s backup at left tackle, and junior Samson Bailey, who is junior Paul Adams’ backup at right tackle, both started some at center or right guard last season.
Senior and Bonner Springs grad Tyler Howell will remain the starting left tackle, with junior-college transfer Yasir Durant from Arizona Western College serving as his backup.
At quarterback, sophomore Jack Lowary and redshirt freshman Micah Wilson were listed as the co-backups behind starter Drew Lock, a junior from Lee’s Summit.
More-special special teams
Odom issued a mea culpa about his role as Mizzou’s special-teams coach last season.
“I messed it up last year trying to do it all,” Odom said. “We’ll be a much better special-teams operation from top to bottom.”
The more-special special teams start with junior punter Corey Fatony, who is a fan favorite and undervalued weapon for the Tigers.
“Fatony has done unbelievable,” Odom said. “I wouldn’t trade him for anyone in the country at that spot.”
When he sky punts in practice and the balls comes down at the 5 instead of the 3-yard line, “he’s mad,” Odom said. “He’s pretty talented.”
Sophomore kicker Tucker McCann also had a strong camp and Odom lauded the speed on the Tigers’ coverage teams.
Wide receivers Johnathon Johnson, Dimetrios Mason and Richaud Floyd are expected to handle return duties.
Here’s the full depth chart from Mizzou’s week one notes: