Campus Corner

Ask Tod: Luke Del Rio’s back, Mizzou’s defense is struggling and thoughts on Tigers basketball

Luke Del Rio is expected to start at quarterback for Florida against Missouri on Saturday.
Luke Del Rio is expected to start at quarterback for Florida against Missouri on Saturday. The Associated Press

Missouri will face Florida’s QB1 now that sophomore Luke del Rio is back for the Gators from a sprained knee.

Del Rio, the son of Raiders coach Jack Del Rio, missed the last two games, but Gators coach Jim McElwain said Del Rio was healthy enough to play last week against LSU before that game was postponed to Nov. 19 by Hurricane Matthew.

“I did everything I could to try to play every week,” Del Rio said. “It was painful, but it wasn’t even about pain. It was about functionality. Could the knee handle it? I was at the point last week where it could.”

Del Rio, who played with a broken non-throwing arm as a high school senior, was disappointed to miss two games, but he’s also glad it wasn’t more.

“Luke is excited and itching to go,” McElwain said. “It (his knee) swelled up a little bit, if I’ll be straight up, (last) Wednesday, but we were assured that that was kind of normal.”

Del Rio, who suffered the injury against North Texas and missed Florida’s 38-28 loss at Tennessee and 13-6 win at Vanderbilt, wasn’t limited at practice this week.

“He’s probably the best quarterback,” Tigers coach Barry Odom said. “Looking early, especially the Kentucky game, he played really well.”

The Gators averaged 288 yards passing per game in Del Rio’s first two starts, wins against Massachusetts and Kentucky, and churned out 6.54 yards per play against North Texas.

Without Del Rio, Florida’s offense slumped, managing only 402 total yards against the Volunteers and a meager 236 yards against the Commodores, who limited the Gators to 144 yards passing and 3.75 yards per play on offense.

Del Rio’s return inspires confidence that things will turn around.

“Not knocking (backup quarterback Austin) Appleby at all, it’s just that Luke is a little bit more comfortable with the offense and understanding points and stuff like that,” sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett said. “I think we’ll do a lot better come Saturday. … Luke takes a little bit of load off my shoulders. He has everybody in command. He’s like a general. He calms everybody down in tough situations and brings us all together.”

Now, onto your questions:

No, it’s the system new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross wants and believes in and one first-year coach Barry Odom — a very bright defensive mind, you might remember — signed off on. Mizzou knew there would be a learning curve with the transition to a gap-control, read-oriented scheme, but obviously the staff believes that’s the best path to a championship. Ultimately, that’s the goal.

The learning curve has proven to be much more steep than anticipated. Part of that is personnel, adjusting to the loss of All-American linebacker Kentrell Brothers hasn’t been easy and the unit was dealt a blow when Freshman All-American Walter Brady was dismissed on the eve of training camp. But it’s also a reflection of the fact Odom and his staff haven’t had a chance to recruit to the new scheme yet.

There has been some pushback from a handful of players who are set in the old ways of doing things for the defense, but Cross said Tuesday the process of getting everyone on the same page is progressing. He also promised tweaks to the scheme, perhaps with the deployment of linebackers, beginning with Florida after a team meeting during the bye week. Players were given a chance to voice frustration or other issues with the new scheme and the coaching staff plans to incorporate that information in adjusting the system to help guys make more plays.

Will it pay off this year? That remains to be seen, but Mizzou is committed to the new system and won’t scrap after a half-year. Besides, no matter what scheme the Tigers utilize, if the tackling doesn’t improve it’s largely window dressing. At some point, it’s on the players to man up and make stops in critical situations, especially third down.

Under, but not by much. If I were setting the line, I’d probably go 15, understanding it might move to 14  1/2 given the team’s history the last two seasons and the money I’d expect to pour in on the under. Then again, I am not, nor have I ever claimed to be, a Vegas handicapper.

Missouri’s sophomore class — point guard Terrence Phillips, forward Kevin Puryear, shooting guard Cullen VanLeer and slasher K.J. Walton — complement each other well and all showed potential last season. It’s a team-oriented group with a hunger to restore the Tigers’ roar and a much-needed year of experience to lean on under its collective belt.

I think this is a solid core to build around. Mizzou still lacks size on the interior, but I think senior Russell Woods and the two new freshmen bigs, Reed Nikko and Mitchell Smith, could surprise some folks. There’s some athleticism and talent in that bunch. They’ll still struggle against elite frontcourts, but I suspect they’ll hold their own against some of the middling big men in the Southeastern Conference.

Forward Willie Jackson and shooting guard Frankie Hughes, who played together at Garfield Heights High in Cleveland, have tremendous chemistry, deep passion for the game, bring tons of enthusiasm and energy and, I think, will be a fun combo to watch for many years to come for Missouri.

Junior college transfer Jordan Geist brings tenacity and much-needed depth behind Phillips, but the true wild card is Jordan Barnett. Barnett, a Texas transfer from CBC in St. Louis, won’t be eligible until after the first semester ends after transferring midseason last year. He’s a physical specimen and was a talented scorer and rebounder in high school. Barnett never fulfilled his potential with the Longhorns, but he’ll be in a more prominent role with the Tigers and could be a difference-maker when he becomes eligible. I actually think 16 wins, perhaps even more, is possible, depending on how things go in conference play. Mizzou gets Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi twice. Sweep a couple of those teams and the Tigers could be in good shape.

It’s not depressing at all for me. It’s just part of the job. Teki Gill-Caesar was a good player and certainly would have helped Missouri last season (and probably this season), but the transfer rate in college basketball is obscene.

Third-year coach Kim Anderson has overseen an unusually volatile roster during his first two years, but that’s also part of the sport’s culture right now. Plus, some of the housecleaning was needed — both among guys left over from the Frank Haith era and players signed in desperation that first season. Gill-Caesar wasn’t one of those players, at least not in my mind. He’s one of the few players who left Anderson would have preferred to keep, but Mizzou fans should simply wish him well.

I’ve said it before, including above, but I truly believe the Tigers will be a much-improved team, far more competitive and more fun to watch. That doesn’t mean the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT awaits at the end of 2016-17, but it should be a substantial upgrade from 9-23 or 10-21.

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer