COLUMBIA, Mo. • Five days into preseason camp and senior James Franklin remains the front-runner to win Missouri’s quarterback competition — at least based on the distribution of practice snaps — but his challengers haven’t conceded the race.
Clearly upset after a dud spring game, redshirt freshman Maty Mauk spent the summer locked in the film room, training himself to read defenses.
Sophomore Corbin Berkstresser, who struggled last year in relief of Franklin, made an offseason commitment to reshaping his body. Both have restored their confidence on the practice field.
But Franklin isn’t approaching the race like he’s already won. Franklin, voted captain by his teammates last week, has been sharp in practice and “attacking the competition,” quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said,
“Being healthy and just having a new season upon you kind of gives guys a jolt of energy,” Hill said. “He’s doing a nice job of taking charge of it.”
With the preseason’s first scrimmage scheduled for Saturday, Mauk will have to make the most of limited work with the No. 1 offense to unseat Franklin for the starting job. Through the first four practices, Mauk said Franklin was getting about 70 percent of the first-team snaps, the rest going to Mauk. Berkstresser has been working with the second and third units.
However the order unravels by the Tigers’ Aug. 31 season opener against Murray State, they appear to have better depth at the game’s most crucial position — at least better than last year when Mizzou couldn’t overcome Franklin’s series of injuries and turned to Berkstresser, an untested redshirt freshman, to start four games.
It was unfamiliar territory for coach Gary Pinkel, handing the controls to someone other than his chosen starter. From Brad Smith’s redshirt freshman season in 2002 to Franklin’s sophomore year in 2011, the Tigers enjoyed 10 seasons of uninterrupted continuity at quarterback: Smith started every game from 2002-05, Chase Daniel every game from 2006-08, Blaine Gabbert every game in 2009-10 and Franklin every game in 2011.
With five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this year, including freshmen Eddie Printz and Trent Hosick, who both enrolled early and participated in spring practices, the Tigers are equipped with a deeper and better QB bench, Pinkel believes.
“Being game-ready and having good depth in terms of ability are two different things,” Pinkel said. “Obviously, you have to be in position to be able to perform. It’s such a difficult position to play. But I really like the group of guys that we have. It’s a really good situation for us.”
Mauk’s mission to win the starting job started shortly after his disappointing performance in April’s Black and Gold scrimmage, when he threw two interceptions and completed just 35 percent of his passes.
“I was going too fast,” Mauk said. “I wasn’t really reading anything. I was just throwing it around. But that was my first live game in front of people. I don’t want to say that was much of a factor, but getting out here and letting them see me play for the first time, that’s my motivation now, to make everyone here have a good time watching.”
To make that happen, Mauk spent countless hours holed up in Missouri’s quarterback room this summer, studying film of his spring reps and upcoming opponents. He focused on reading defenses and making quick decisions.
“I think the kid’s committed himself to the mental part of the game,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said.
Coming into preseason camp, Hill wanted to see Mauk eliminate careless mistakes — the kind Franklin didn’t make in the spring and helped him maintain his lead in the race.
“In golf, the guys who take care of the ball and don’t shank it out bounds are the ones who score well,” Hill said. “In football, the ones who don’t give the ball to the other team are the consistent ones.”
For Berkstresser, the best way to move past 2012 was to move better overall. And that meant he’d have to change his body. Berkstresser kept to a strict diet this offseason — more protein, fewer carbohydrates, no breads — and reported to camp with 8 percent body fat, down from 14 percent last season.
“I’ve got more energy,” said the 6-3, 220-pound sophomore, who’s five pounds lighter than his playing weight last year. “I might not be that much quicker, but I definitely feel quicker with my footwork.”
Thrown into action when Franklin bruised his surgically repaired shoulder early last season, Berkstresser struggled with his accuracy — he completed just 49.7 percent of his passes, worst among the 17 SEC quarterbacks who attempted as least 100 passes — but offseason film work showed his footwork was a mess.
“Last year I thought in a few situations, he was like, ‘Ohhhh, I don’t know what I’m doing,’” Hill said. “He’s a lot more responsive. He’s a lot more sure of himself and playing with a lot more confidence.”
“If you’re any kind of competitor,” Berkstresser said, “you’ve got to be able to bounce back and stay strong.”
With improved depth, Missouri needs a bounce-back year at the quarterback position — whoever the chosen starter might be.