COLUMBIA - Missouri linebacker Joey Burkett began this season looking to get more experience. The sophomore, a graduate of Jefferson City High School, just might get his wish Saturday.
Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who leads the nation with 52 tackles, left the field in the third quarter of Missouri's game at Kentucky with an ankle injury. Brothers is listed as questionable for Saturday's game against South Carolina, and Burkett sits behind Brothers at weak-side linebacker on the Tigers' depth chart.
Although Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the Tigers' plan for replacing Brothers - if it's even necessary - has yet to be decided, he said Burkett can certainly expect to play more.
"That's why we like to play more than just the starters in games, because sooner or later that experience is going to pay off," Pinkel said. "He'll be ready."
Senior outside linebacker Clarence Green did most of the filling in Saturday for Brothers. Green, who started twice last year, has 16 tackles, a safety and a half tackle for loss through four games. Burkett has played in every game this season, and has eight total tackles.
Whoever plays, senior safety and team captain Ian Simon has confidence in the Tigers' linebacking corps.
"I've seen all those guys make plays all camp, all spring," he said. "I have no dip in confidence (if Brothers can't play). I believe that the coaches know what they're doing. I trust in the coaches. I have faith in my guys. I know that they're all ballers and are ready to play."
Middle linebacker Michael Scherer said the snaps Burkett gets should pay dividends down the road.
"Joey is a fast, athletic kid," he said. "All he needs is some experience. He's still pretty young, and when you get in the game and you're young like that, you're kind of shellshocked at first, and then once you get the flow of things, you can play. I told him, anytime he comes out there, I'd look at him and say, "Hey, listen to me. I'm going to let you know what's going on.' And he does it, and I think he's only going to get better from here."
Burkett, who got most of his experience on special teams prior to the season, agreed that simply getting on the field goes a long way.
"It really just kind of shakes the nerves away," he said, "because when you're first out there, you don't know what's going on, and it takes a couple plays for everything to calm down, and after that it's a lot easier."
Scherer had a similar experience his redshirt freshman year when he had to step in for then-senior Andrew Wilson, who was ejected from a game for a targeting penalty.
"It's a whole new world out there when you've got to be out there for a while, let me tell you," Scherer said. "But once you get your feet wet, you go with the punches."
Playing behind linebackers like Brothers and Scherer - the Southeastern Conference's top returning tacklers this season - has sped up Burkett's development, even when it means doing so off the field.
"I learn so much upstairs in the meeting rooms," Burkett said. "We'll just be watching films, and they will just point out the littlest things that can help you with your game and help you understand what's going on with the play.
"I mean, they're so game-smart. That's what makes them so good, and that's the biggest thing that I'm trying to learn from them."