Five Downs: Tuesday, March 12
Missouri returned to the Devine Pavilion for the fifth practice of spring football. Here is today’s Five Downs Notebook.
The Tigers were a bit thin at slot receiver on Tuesday. Johnathon Johnson is nursing tendinitis in his knee and was a limited participant, but should return later this week. Dominic Gicinto is day-to-day with a sore hamstring.
The only substantial health news was on freshman safety Jalani Williams. The four-star prospect out of Parkway North, who enrolled early, sprained his foot in practice last week and had surgery. He will miss the rest of spring football.
“Probably if he was just a normal me or you walking down the street then wouldn’t have needed to get it fixed, but at this point in his career, what we expect him to be able to go do, they wanted to go in and tighten it up,” head coach Barry Odom said. “Every mental rep that you can get, I don’t know that it’s a physical rep, but those add up.
“As a player, whether you’re on the first, second or fifth team, every time there’s a play called, everybody gets a play call. If they look and they’re focused and their eyes are in the right spot, then they can go out and put themselves visually in that spot and go through it.”
A CLEAR #1 BACK
Missouri goes into spring ball with a clear pecking order at running back, something it didn’t have a season ago. Damarea Crockett declared for the NFL Draft after his senior season, leaving Larry Rountree III as the no-questions-asked starter.
Rountree had 78 more carries and 493 more yards than Crockett a season ago, due partly to Crockett missing some time due to injury for a second straight season. He had clearly taken over the starting job by the end of the season when he ran for 204 yards in the Liberty Bowl as Crockett watched from the sidelines.
“Now it’s weird because he’s gone,” Rountree said. “It’s weird, because it was Ish when I first came in, Ish Witter, and then when Ish left it was Damarea. So now it’s me and Dawson (Downing) and Jerney (Jones), we’re the oldest ones in the running back room, so I just think when you get older you have to take on that role of being a good teammate, the ultimate teammate, and making sacrifices, and I think that as we get older, we have to take on those roles.”
Tyler Badie, off a breakout freshman season, will be Rountree’s primary backup. Simi Bakare showed flashes late in the season and should be the No. 3 back and December signee Anthony Watkins will hit campus in the summer. And, of course, Missouri’s got a bit more of a running threat at the quarterback position as well.
“Drew (Lock) is more of an arm guy, Kelly (Bryant) can throw and run,” Rountree said. “I could say he can run a little bit better than Drew. But I think it adds a lot. Again, it’s, when you have a quarterback that can run and throw, it puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
BYERS WILL BE ON THE MOVE
Prior to spring ball, Odom said that Akial Byers could play all four positions on the defensive line. The junior is slated as a starter at defensive end, but will likely move inside from time to time in certain packages as well.
“I think there are some mismatches and some things on third down, if we can get a one on one with him, game plan wise, trying to find ways to do that I think is really important,” Odom said. “That’s a bonus for us. We’re gonna need it.”
At about 290 pounds, Byers is athletic enough to be good off the edge, but strong enough to hold his own in the middle, at least part-time. A season ago, he made 20 tackles, recovered two fumbles and scored a touchdown after taking over a starting spot midway through the season. Now entrenched as a starter, the Tigers look for more from Byers.
“Every practice, I’m working with the ends and the tackles,” Byers said. “On the inside you’ve got to be more quick and have good hands. On the outside, you can just move right off the bat and get by the player. It’s a big difference.
“I can beat a person with my strength or my speed if I set it up right.”
Byers said the defensive line has emphasized all offseason the need to get more pressures and sacks than a season ago. Missouri had just 27 sacks last season, 66th in the country.
NOTHING SPECIAL ABOUT IT
Missouri’s offense wasn’t perfect last season. Its defense had plenty of holes. But no area of the team needs as much improvement as the special teams. The Tigers had issues all season long that turned—and lost—games.
It was never one specific issue; it was a whole bunch of them.
“We watched every play extensively. Certainly more than once,” Andy Hill said. “We had blocked kicks at inopportune times and we had penalties on punt returns, in particular, that held us back. We watched it with the team starting with the first meeting, talking about if we can take care of a couple things here, we have a much more positive outlook than we did last year.”
Odom said before spring practice started that Hill would remain the coordinator of the special teams but that the rest of the staff was pitching in as well. The Tigers know the urgency of being better in the game’s third phase.
“What can you do to help yourself out?” Hill said. “You’re out there in space in front of God and everybody where everybody can see you so a block in the back or a hold is a lot more easy to see. So we’ve got to handle ourselves. Sometimes it’s better to let the returner beat the guy than you try to make a heck of a block.”
Missouri will also be breaking in a new holder to replace Corey Fatony and is looking high, low and in between at longsnapper.
“Snapping and holding you should be 100%,” Hill said. “We were between 75 and 80% (on snapping). When you’re trying to get 100, that’s way off.”
DOUBLE DUTY FOR MCCANN
One of the few surprises of the pre-spring depth chart was the starting punter. With Corey Fatony moving on, placekicker Tucker McCann was listed first at that spot. He hasn’t punted in a game since high school, but has worked on it during practice over three years at Missouri.
“There are a lot of finer details that you have to work on,” McCann said. “The drop is the most important part and that’s tricky sometimes if you don’t work on it enough. I’m trying to take advantage of every single minute I have in practice and throughout the week.”
It’s not necessariy expected that McCann will be the punter. Odom mentioned redshirt freshman Josh Dodge as a player that needed to step up and the Tigers’ got commitments from two preferred walk-ons over the weekend who will be on campus this fall. But if duty calls, McCann is ready to answer.
“I want to do anything I can for my team so we can have the best special teams out there,” McCann said. “I know I can do it.”
“There’s times where you’re trying to be aware of his leg, his pitch count,” Hill said. “Now of anybody we’ve got, he’s going to be able to take care of it, but at the same time, he’s been dinged up, he’s had nagging stuff here and there…You add that to the plate, does your focus get diverted? Can you do your job effectively?”
As long as we're blowing right past four downs, why not add one more? Safety Joshuah Bledsoe drew the biggest cheers of Tuesday’s practice (at least from half the team). He pinned a deflected pass behind his back with both hands then somehow controlled it while rolling over to secure an interception. Bledsoe was immediately swarmed by excited defensive teammates. Because the NCAA has not yet instituted replay challenges in practice, the interception stood.