COLUMBIA — A little bit banged-up from the end of last week, the Missouri football team went through a light practice Monday morning on Faurot Field.
The Tigers will be back in full pads today, but Monday's practice was more like a walk-through, a needed reprieve from the seven practices in eight days that led up to Saturday's scrimmage. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was held out in a red jersey, and Missouri coach Barry Odom joked, "I'm starting from head to toe" when asked about the preseason first-team All-SEC selection and one of three Mackey Award finalists last season.
"He's got a number of things, but not anything real serious," Odom said after practice.
Reserve tight end Daniel Parker Jr. was also held out of Monday's practice. Redshirt junior Brendan Scales got more looks in with the first team, and freshman Niko Hea did some end zone blocking with the 1s. Redshirt freshman Messiah Swinson, who missed last season with a torn ACL he suffered in camp, is still working his way back into the offense.
Scales, who made all of his seven appearances last season, said at first not playing immediately wasn't any fun. But he put himself into position to play before this season, and injuries to players in front of him during camp have opened the window even wider.
"Being out there and having the opportunity to do all different things, it's exciting," Scales said. "It's fun."
Okwuegbunam had a scare last Monday in camp after he tried to change directions in the end zone during a passing drill and went down. He has not fully participated in 11-on-11 drills since then. Parker Jr.'s injury was not disclosed.
"If we were in game week, I would (have concerns about tight end depth), but right now, I think if we were playing on Saturday, today's Monday, I think I would project both of those guys to play," Odom said. "I think we're going to be O.K."
Johnathon Johnson, whose foot was stepped on late last week, and cornerback Jalani Williams (dentist's appointment) were both back in practice, and safety Tyree Gillespie (hip injury) was back in limited fashion. Trajan Jeffcoat (elbow sprain) still had his arm in a sling, and freshmen Jaime Pettway and Aidan Harrison have been out for the past week and have not yet returned.
Speaking of game week, Missouri is now just 18 days away from its season opener at Wyoming. The Tigers have eight practices left in training camp, the majority of them before classes start Aug. 20.
In the scrimmage, the defense looked good against an offense that was limited in its play calls, giving up just two big gainers through the air, one from backup Taylor Powell to Kam Scott, who beat his man inside on a post route and scored, and the other from Kelly Bryant, who was flushed out of the pocket to his right near midfield and found Dominic Gicinto at the right sideline in the red zone.
Odom was happy with how things looked coming out of that scrimmage despite the offense running "four or five plays out of different formations," and was pleased again Monday.
"We've learned some things about our team in the last couple of days, and I think we've definitely moved it forward in a lot of ways," he said. "In a lot of ways, we're a lot better than we were three days ago. But we've got a long ways to go."
The Tigers will start adding some things to prepare for Wyoming this week. Missouri's game against the Cowboys in Week 2 in Columbia last season was the highlight for a defense that was 112th in passing yards allowed at 262 per game. The defense, against Josh Allen's replacement and true freshman Tyler Vander Waal, held Wyoming to 13-for-28 and 160 yards through the air.
That was one of four games in which the Tigers held an opponent to less than than 200 passing yards. The others came at home against Tennessee-Martin and Arkansas, and at Tennessee. Missouri opponents threw for an average of 212.7 yards per game at Memorial Stadium, and for 319.5 in road/neutral site games.
The team is hoping, with the addition of David Gibbs as defensive backs coach and a room that returns every DB except Finis Stribling IV from last season's team that recorded 10 interceptions in 13 games, they can take some yards and points off the board with a few more takeaways.
Corners DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes are the two immediately-recognizable names at the back, but safeties Gillespie, Joshuah Bledsoe, Jordan Ulmer, Ronnell Perkins, Khalil Oliver and Williams could all make an impact in a defense that has transitioned its SAM (strong side) linebacker into a more clearly-defined hybrid role between linebacker and a third safety. The uptick in passing offenses, particularly in early downs, has led a lot of college defenses toward playing a nickel defense more frequently than just on second- or third-and-long situations.
Ulmer, a junior, is in a similar spot as Scales, though he played in 18 total games in his freshman and sophomore seasons and now could be a Week 1 starter.
"He's grown up. He's matured and credit to him on the approach that he's taken," Odom said. "Because there were times that I didn't know if he's going to be part of the program. And that's just being real honest. And he knows it. That was some of the things he was not taking care of academically. He's got all this ability. He had to look in the mirror a little bit. I'm proud of him, because he has grown up and he has had as good of camp as anybody up to this point. He's going to help us."