Missouri fans have been a bit restless this week. Turns out, the players were too. Senior tight end Jason Reese said that Tigers called a players’ only meeting on Monday afternoon after a 35-3 loss to Purdue left them 1-2 on the season.
“I think we’ve kind of called ourselves out on the way we’ve been competing both in practice and games,” Reese said. “We resolved a lot of the issues that have been going on; more or less, talking too much and not doing a whole lot.”
One of the most vocal players at that meeting? Freshman linebacker Aubrey Miller, who has seen the field only on special teams so far this season.
“He doesn’t have a very big role on defense, per se, but his special teams role is very large and he does a great job of playing with enthusiasm,” Reese said. “I would like to say that I’m a leader on this team, but I don’t think I’ve been doing my job well enough. He’s one of the guys that I’m looking up to now. Even though I’m the senior, I’m going to model my game more like him.”
Despite the (to be kind) rocky first quarter of the season, head coach Barry Odom is maintaining the positive approach as the Tigers get ready for No. 17 Auburn this weekend at Memorial Stadium.
“You look at the course of where we are and what we’re going to do, I don’t think anything’s unrealistic if you really believe you can go do it,” Odom said. “We’re three games into this deal. We’ve got nine games left. I still believe with very strong conviction that we’ll be alright.”
"We're gonna get the job done," linebacker Terez Hall said. "I know it don't look well, but we're trying to fix it every day in practice. We're gonna keep working hard."
Hall admitted last week was a step back, but the Tigers remain resolved to get things headed in the right direction.
"We let Purdue come and run all over us," he said. "Guys wasn't tackling well, offense didn't come out ready. We thought it was gonna be a breeze cause they was Purdue or something like that. But they're a good team. They got players just like we got players. That's what you get when you don't come out ready."
Odom and his coaching staff have taken plenty of heat over the last couple of weeks from Missouri fans. But Reese said the onus to turn things around is on the players.
“This is our team, ultimately,” he said. “If we want things to change, it has to be through us first."
"You either want to play or you don't want to play," Hall added. "It's all about putting the players who want to be out there on the field out there. They got to want to come out there and play. The energy part gonna come when you're out there making plays. You got to want to do these things."
TIGHT ENDS MISSING IN ACTION
Prior to the season, Missouri tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley said he felt the Tigers had five players at the position capable of playing on Sunday. In the season opener against Missouri State, all three caught passes and two of them reached the end zone. The total since: Two catches, 88 yards.
“We just did not play well enough and did not execute our game plan well enough to get to the plays we wanted to get to,” Reese said of last week’s loss. “We just could not get anything started last week. We’re looking to come out and have a great practice and hopefully it’s going to change this weekend.”
Both of those catches came from Reese. Neither Albert Okwuegbunam nor Kendall Blanton has caught a pass in the last two games. The tight ends weren’t even targeted last week against Purdue.
“We were in some gap protection this past week just because of some of the multiple pressures that they had shown on tape,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “He ended up not bringing a lot of it, but going into it he had shown a bunch so they weren’t as targeted. Obviously our run game wasn’t going like it typically is so some of the play action passes to those guys weren’t as primary a thought either as the game unfolded.”
“There’s been opportunities that maybe the initial read took us somewhere else, but also those guys, the way teams are playing defensively a little bit, they’re aware of where they are,” Odom said. “They’ve got a chance to help us with the ball in their hands and there has been times we could have went to them a couple more times to give them a shot.”
"It's all been in the game plan because we're seeing a lot of mixed blitzes in," Okwuegbunam said. "It was completely expected."
Monday’s depth chart featured Okwuegbunam as the backup and Blanton was listed third. Both will still play and the Tigers have some sets that have two tight ends on the field at once, but it’s been a steady fall down the depth chart for Blanton, who entered fall camp as a starter. According to his position coach, though, Blanton remains even with Okwuegbunam and impressed him against Purdue.
"He played a lot better this week," Joe Jon Finley said. "I know it didn't show on the scoreboard, but for him, his mentality and his physicalness were far and away better than week two."
While the receptions are what stand out in the box score, it's an all-around product the Tigers are looking for from the trio.
"They made strides from week one to week two and even bigger strides from week two to week three as far as being physical," Finley said. "That's really what I wanted to see on Saturday and I think Kendall and Albert definitely really picked up their game in that area."
"I came in here as a wide receiver. That's all I played in high school, all I knew," Okwuegbunam said. "Coach Finley's done a phenomenal job of making me into a true tight end and becoming a pretty good blocker, both run blocking and pass blocking."
TIGERS NEED MORE FROM LOCK, NO CLARITY AT BACKUP
The guy throwing those passes, regardless of the intended receiver, has missed his mark most of the time the last two weeks. Drew Lock is just 26-for-60 for 378 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in the last two weeks.
“With now the number of starts that he has or the number of snaps that he has in real competition, we expect him to play at a really high level,” Odom said. “I think he can be a lot better.”
Lock was unavailable for interviews at Missouri's media session on Tuesday. He remains the unquestioned and pretty much unchallenged starter for the Tigers. Barring injury, that’s not likely to change this season. As far as the backups, Micah Wilson and Jack Lowary continue to be designated as even on the depth chart, but the Tigers haven’t really had a chance to find out what they have in either one.
The opener was much closer than expected, keeping Lock on the field deep into the fourth quarter. Wilson got a handful of snaps on Saturday against Purdue.
“I wish he would have kept one the other day on a zone read. Micah’s got a chance, he’s got some skills running the ball,” Odom said. “Depending on what the situation is in a game, either of those guys could go in.”
STILL SEARCHING FOR ANSWERS AT SAFETY
The defense has been up-and-down this season, featuring little consistency. Perhaps the most troublesome spot has been safety. Senior Anthony Sherrils has established himself as a starter, but the rest of the pieces at the position have changed on a weekly basis.
Thomas Wilson barely played in week one. He has started the last two games.
“He’s practiced a lot more consistent and he’s become a leader back there,” Odom said. “He had an error the other day that cost us, but he also has played some good football.”
Freshman Jordan Ulmer was the starter against the Bears, but barely saw the field against South Carolina and played only on special teams against Purdue.
“Hasn’t done anything terrible enough not to get back out there,” Odom said. “Things hit him pretty fast and it’s a different ballgame back there when things are happening fast.
“Still think he’s got a tremendous future and is going to be a great player, but we’ve got to get him a little more game ready.”
Ronnell Perkins is still not completely over a hamstring injury that has lingered since the start of camp. Cam Hilton was suspended for the first half of the South Carolina game due to a second-half targeting penalty against Missouri State. Tyree Gillespie was on the two-deep when Hilton was out, but didn't play much. The musical chairs in the secondary has continued.
“We have played a lot of guys there,” Odom said. “All those guys have a role and they’re going to continue to play. Quite honestly, I don’ think we’ve got one guy besides Thomas who has stepped up and can be, is at this point, an every down guy.”
BYERS' RETURN BOLSTERS DEFENSIVE LINE
Up front, defensive tackle Walter Palmore will remain sidelined this week with a sprained knee. As Palmore went down, Missouri was able to turn to freshman Akial Byers, who had healed up from a similar injury suffered during fall camp.
“Because of Walter Palmore’s injury, we moved Akial back inside,” Odom said. “I don’t know, long-term, (if) he can play all four spots. I really think so.”
Speaking of injuries, Odom also offered an update on cornerback Christian Holmes, who has been out all season after dislocating his shoulder in fall camp and having surgery.
“When he had the operation, I think we looked at it as maybe an eight week forecast on trying to get him back,” Odom said. “There’s also a difference in getting him back and getting him back and being able to function to play a game.
TIGERS RELEASE 2018 SCHEDULE
Saturday’s game will kick off at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU. But it’s never too early to think about next year. The SEC released dates for the 2018 schedule. Here is Missouri’s: