Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — After a redshirt season and a year of mainly special-teams work, Joey Burkett is now set to see the field as Missouri’s second-string weakside linebacker.
But his role isn’t the only thing that’s bigger about Burkett this training camp.
The former Jefferson City Jay has bulked up in the offseason, adding 10-15 pounds to his playing weight from last season.
“When Joey first got here, he was this scrawny linebacker,” senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers said, “who I thought was maybe more fast than he is strong. But now that I’ve gotten to know him I know that he’s a pretty strong guy. I feel like he’s developed pretty well.”
Brothers’ assessment came in the spring, after Burkett made team-high six tackles in the Black and Gold Game. Burkett has added muscle since then, saying it was his goal in the offseason to get up to “SEC standards.”
“Since I got here in January, he’s added weight a little bit every couple weeks,” first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “He’s a up a couple more pounds, so he knows how important that is. He’s quick and as fast as anybody, so his strength has increased, and he’s an explosive player.”
The speed was always there for Burkett. As a high school prospect, his 40-yard dash time was listed at 4.60 seconds by Hudl.com. In addition to racking up 188 tackles and six sacks during his last two seasons with the Jays, Burkett was a state-champion pole vaulter as a senior and ran in the team’s second-place 4×100-meter relay team.
Now that he has added strength to his 6-foot-2 frame, Burkett’s potential as a linebacker is starting to take shape.
“Joey has taken a huge step,” senior linebacker Clarence Green said. “I’ve seen him grow from his redshirt year to now, and it’s awesome just to see him flying around.”
Burkett sits behind Brothers on the depth chart, backing up one of the most experienced linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. Brothers’ 122 tackles last year are tops among returning SEC linebackers.
Burkett said Brothers is always there to fill him in if he has any questions about the defense.
“It’s pretty tough having to play behind me,” Brothers joked. “But that’s also good because that’s giving him that extra motivation to fight and get a spot. So I feel like he’s been doing a great job, and hopefully he keeps it up.”
Alongside Brothers is the second-highest returning tackler in the SEC, junior Michael Scherer, who starts at middle linebacker.
“They’re both like big brothers,” Burkett said. “They help you out. They’re both super smart players. Having them out there, they give you pointers that you would never even think of, but you look at it and think, ‘Wow, that makes a lot of sense.’”
Junior Donavin Newsom is set to start at strongside linebacker, with Green nipping at his heels. Newsom said he has noticed Burkett’s added muscle in training camp.
“He’s much stronger,” Newsom said. “On his 225(-pound) rep, I’m pretty sure he hit like 30-something. You can tell by how physical he is on the field.”
The linebacker group could be a key one this year for Missouri. The Tigers’ typically forceful defensive line is dealing with plenty of turnover, and Odom’s defense could include some 3-4 elements that would put an added linebacker on the field.
Burkett said there have been some adjustments playing for Odom, who is also the team’s linebackers coach, but at the end of the day, “I mean, it’s all defense.” He enjoys the passion the former Memphis defensive coordinator brings to Missouri.
“He’s got a lot of enthusiasm, and it’s a lot of fun,” Burkett said. “Like, out here today, the defense was down for a little bit, and the enthusiasm on the sideline coming from the team and the coaching staff was phenomenal.”
Odom likes what he has seen from Burkett so far, too.
“Joe has increased and gotten better every day, and his role continues to grow,” Odom said. “I think he’s multiple and athletic enough to play a couple different spots. The details of each position are something he’s working to get better at every day, and he has. He’s improved. He’s playing physical. He’s got great quickness, and I’m excited about Joe and his future.”
The future includes five more training camp practices and two more preseason scrimmages. Missouri’s season officially begins Sept. 5 when the Tigers host Southeast Missouri in their season opener. Burkett said his family will be at every home game, and his father, Eric, will travel to every road contest.
Now in his third year in Columbia, Burkett said playing for the Tigers is a dream come true coming from Jefferson City.
“You sit there and watch them your whole life growing up,” he said. “It’s pretty great.”
Though he is the sole Jefferson City player on Missouri’s roster, Burkett has a legendary former Jay close at hand. Justin Smith, who played for the Jays, the Tigers and spent 14 years in the NFL, is working with Missouri as a part-time weight room assistant.
Burkett said he’s spoken some with Smith, who retired from the San Francisco 49ers in May.
“He still looks like he could just go out there and beat anybody right now,” Burkett said.
Meanwhile, Burkett’s current objective is to do that himself. He made a mark Saturday in the Tigers’ first fall scrimmage. His five solo tackles were tied for third on the team, and he had eight tackles overall.
He has just one career tackle in regular-season play, a takedown of Florida kick returner Valdez Showers last fall in Gainesville, Fla.
But with more playing time ahead, that’s just the start.
“After the first one, all the rest just come easy,” Burkett said. “I’d like to think, anyway.”