Before junior tight end Eric Waters and his serious expression were found on the sidelines of the Missouri football team’s practice field Monday morning, coach Gary Pinkel finished talking to his players huddled at the center of the field.
It was the team’s fifth day of fall practice and also the first day players stepped onto the field in full pads.
“I’m a little concerned about the focus of our team being able to focus, to become a great player a great offense or defense,” Pinkel said. “You don’t automatically go into games as a focused player. You do it (by grinding) through a long practice. You stay focused and that makes you a better player, and the consistency you need to have if you want to be good. That’s the discussion I had with the team.”
Pinkel has brought up the plight of maturity often in August, nearly four weeks until he and his squad come face to face with their Southeastern Conference schedule.
“Kids aren’t made as focused, ready as they used to be,” he said. “It’s kind of the way they’re brought up a little bit, maybe all this technology and things like that… You know a guy has the ability to play and is good enough, but he’s just not mature enough or focused enough. That’s the frustration of a coach because you want to hurry the process, you want them to play right now.”
Pinkel mentions former tight end Michael Egnew, the Miami Dolphins’ second-round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, in the discussion.
“I’m not trying to parallel any player with what happened with Michael Egnew, but his freshman and sophomore year, a decent, pretty good player,” he said. “… Then all of the sudden his third year--he was just as strong, just as fast--but his experience level, his ability to focus better was why he became an All-American.”
Taking the reins as Egnew’s replacement at Missouri is Waters on the sideline. Earlier in practice, he paced up and down a line of kneeling offensive teammates and slapped their shoulder pads. There was a goal-line 11-on-11 segment taking place on the field.
“Offense, we will not lose!” he said. “We refuse to lose!”
The offense lost. A coach hollered into a megaphone after each play and tallied which side won. The final count was heavily in the defense’s favor, 10-1.
Wide receivers coach Andy Hill took Waters aside here and there.
“I messed up a couple times and got chewed out pretty good,” Waters said. “Yes, I got yelled at, but I took it, I asked him after practice what went wrong.”
He enters the year with two career catches and the title of starting Missouri tight end to his name. That’s two catches and the role played by three others who have been named All-Americans in the past six years, including Martin Rucker (2007), Chase Coffman (’08) and Egnew (’10).
“Your role is your role,” Waters said. “You accept it, you embrace it, you take it all out 100 percent.”
As for his role, he recognizes the talent around him. He makes the list.
“We’ve got playmakers on the outside from (junior receiver) Marcus Lucas, (senior receiver) T.J. Moe, (senior receiver) Gahn McGaffie,” he said. “On the other edge, (junior receiver) L’Damian Washington. … It’s awesome.”
He’s careful to give his personal expectations.
“I’m more focused about those guys touching it,” he said. “Those guys touch it, I’m the happiest, the biggest cheerleader … I could catch zero passes for all I care. Marcus Lucas can catch 50 passes a game, L’Damian can catch 50 passes a game and I’ll be blocking down the field. I know that’s going to equate to wins.”
Pinkel said that his receiving committee was indeed loaded.
“My big thing with receivers right now is, you know, separate yourself,” he said. “You want the ball, you want to be the guy, separate yourself.”
It hasn’t been Waters making the eye-popping catches at practices.
He’s been talking about his role, and he’s been separating himself in another way that Pinkel appreciates.
“He’s a different guy than he was two years ago,” Pinkel said.