COLUMBIA, Mo. - With three weeks until the season opener at Wyoming, Missouri held its first preseason scrimmage Saturday morning on Faurot Field. It wasn’t the best day for the offense, though the Tigers weren’t at full capacity with personnel or playbook.
Barry Odom described the offensive game plan as “really, really vanilla." Also, Kelly Bryant’s two most experienced targets were sidelined and nursing minor injuries: slot receiver Johnathon Johnson, out with a sore foot, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, whose status Odom said he’d discuss after the next practice on Monday. He wasn’t alarmed. “He’s one of the guys at this point if we played (a game) today he would have played, but no reason for him to scrimmage today,” Odom said. It was just Monday when Okwuegbunam had to leave practice with a sprained right knee, though he was back the last few days in a limited role.
Also held out of Saturday’s scrimmage were starting strong safety Tyree Gillespie (hip), backup strong safety Jalani Williams (dental work) and backup wideout C.J. Boone (also dental work). Defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat (sprained elbow) remains sidelined.
Matched against the No. 1 defense on every possession, the No. 1 offense scored a couple touchdowns on the ground, both Larry Rountree runs from just outside the goal line. Otherwise, the first unit was mostly stagnant. Cornerback Jarvis Ware nearly picked off Bryant twice on throws downfield. In a two-minute drill, safety Ronnell Perkins intercepted Bryant on a rushed throw, forced into coverage by pressure from the outside. Earlier, Bryant connected with Dominic Gicinto for the day’s biggest play from scrimmage, a 46-yard pass on a scramble to his right well outside of the pocket, a play that set up Rountree’s second TD run. Bryant also showed off his legs with a handful of freelanced runs outside of the pocket.
On the pass to Gicinto, Bryant said, “I just got a little pressure front side and escaped out the pocket. I was initially going to Jalen (Knox) but somehow saw Dom deep and just gave him the ball. He made a great catch right there on a low ball, but that's just what I can do outside the pocket.”
The second unit visited the end zone three times, first on a short Taylor Powell keeper then a 34-yard touchdown from Powell to wideout Kam Scott. Freshman running back Anthony Watkins later punched in a short TD with the second unit.
“First real life situation in the scrimmage,” Odom said. “We held some guys out today just because I’ve seen the body of work that they've done the first seven days or so in practice and (they’re) banged up a little bit. So the focus is on them getting recovered and getting ready to go for next week of camp. In that situation (it’s), ‘Next guy up.’ A lot of newcomers got their first taste of some live action. So we learned some things about our team today and I'm excited about the progress we've made.
“I think some things we did on offense today we were limited on what we called, really four to five plays out of different formations and did some good things there. Then defensively I thought that they played sound. I thought they played aggressive and some of the things that I saw on the back end, without looking at the video, I've been impressed with the way that our defensive staff has worked together on building this group. A lot of skilled athletes, but I think they’ve got a chance to be a special group. Offensively, we wanted to do some different things today and without getting into a lot of schematics about it … they were really, really vanilla, but I thought there were times that that offense, the 1s specifically, did some really good things.”
A few more notes and quotes …
• Ware has played so well in camp that established starters DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes have some serious competition for their starting jobs. Odom said the staff essentially considers Ware a third starter. “Who knows who will be the first guys on the field for the first snap,” Odom said. “They're all what would be labeled starters. I think they all three have earned that. I'm excited that that they have upped their game from practice one until today. Now (it’s about) the consistency of doing it all the time. W got to keep bringing (Adam) Sparks along from the injury. You'd like to have more than three, and I think we do on our roster, but we have go to get them game ready.”
• It’s a luxury to have the backup slot receivers this team has in Gicinto and Barrett Banister, who had two catches for first downs. Johnson is an 900-yard season away from setting MU’s career record for receiving yards — that’s hard to believe but true — but there’s depth in reserve. Banister was clutch on third downs last year — three of his eight receptions came on third down and all three moved the chains — and now comes into the season armed with a scholarship and confidence. “I would say last year coming in, it was more of a learning experience,” Banister said. “It was, where can I fit into this offense? Now it's more of, I know where I can fit in and it's time to go show that I can do that on a consistent basis.”
• There’s been a lot of talk and concern about the outside pass rush for this defense, but this D-line is going to create push up the middle against the pass and the run. D-tackle Kobie Whiteside powered his way into the pocket for a sack against the first-team line. Akial Byers, now a full-time D-tackle, brings edge rush experience to the interior. The slimmed-down Jordan Elliott is going to give offensive guards problems when matched against a single blocker. Best of all, the tackles should have fresh legs thanks to the group’s depth. Those three are in line for starting jobs, with Markell Utsey next in line.
• With his speed on this outside, the Tigers have to find ways to get Scott more touches. If you can clear out a deep safety from the middle of the field, Scott should be able to get separation from most corners on post patterns and deep slants — as he showed Saturday. “Last year I was kind of like hesitant with a lot of stuff, not moving at the pace I wanted to move on the field,” he said. “This year I’m developing and mastering being on the field and staying focused and having all the details and little things. I’m playing free, so I feel comfortable on the field.”
• As much as Rountree is the workhorse on this team, Tyler Badie’s got a chance to touch the ball a lot this fall, on carries and catches out of the backfield. As for the No. 3 back, Simi Bakare seems to be getting the most chances, but Watkins is right there behind him. Can Dawson Downing carve out a role? There might not be enough carries in competitive games for the 225-pound junior, but he’s a load to bring down, which is why he’s a short-yardage fullback.