Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Corbin Berkstresser’s timing could have been better.
The Missouri quarterback was thrust into a starting role in 2012 as a redshirt freshman when starter James Franklin was sidelined with injuries. Behind an offensive line plagued by injuries of its own, Berkstresser started four games in Missouri’s inaugural Southeastern Conference season, a 5-7 campaign that failed to send the Tigers to a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
Now, Missouri is coming off its second straight season in which it won 11 or more games, including a bowl, and the SEC East divisional title.
Berkstresser, meanwhile, has been relegated to fifth-string quarterback for his senior season. Though if he has anything to say about it, that won’t keep him off the field.
“This year, I said, ‘Hey, I know my role on this team,’” he said. “As an older guy, a senior, I just want to get on the field and make a difference and see what I can do.”
This training camp, that has meant taking reps with the first-string kickoff coverage unit.
“He’ll do anything we ask him to do, and really, he’s the one asking us ‘What can I do to help the football team?’” quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “(We’re) just trying to get him on PAT as a wing and just doing stuff on kickoff return. I think he’s going to be on punt return a little bit, so we put him out there and see what he can do.
“He’s a tough kid and he’s smart, and he’ll hit you.”
The Tigers won two of Berkstresser’s four starts in 2012. In the first, a 24-20 defeat of Arizona State, the Lee’s Summit product completed 21-of-41 passes for 198 yards with an interception and a rushing touchdown.
Franklin resumed first-string duties against South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but Berkstresser got the pleasure of starting against eventual national champion Alabama in a 42-10 loss. Berkstresser completed just 12-of-29 passes for 126 yards and two interceptions and was sacked three times. The Tigers won Berkstresser’s next start, against Kentucky, but he was pulled in the second half for Franklin after two interceptions. Berkstresser played at the wrong end of a blowout once again when the Tigers lost 59-29 to Texas A&M, though he did throw for 276 yards and two touchdowns.
Berkstresser also saw the field against Southeastern Louisiana, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Syracuse that year. By the end of the season, he had completed 88-of-177 passes (49.7 percent) for five touchdowns and seven interceptions.
“It probably was pretty difficult,” Hill said. “Nobody was having fun that year, because you’re not winning the games, but as you’re putting yourself in the situation, he steps up. He’s always ready. I don’t think it hurt him at all, but it’s just difficult when you have different things going on injury wise.”
Three years later, and Berkstresser hasn’t started another game. He threw one pass in 2013, when freshman Maty Mauk became the next backup to replace Franklin for four starts, and none last year.
“I got a few bangups and bruises that year,” Berkstresser said of 2012. “Saw some great competition. … I got to see some of the best stadiums, see some of the best players to play against, and all it gives me is an opportunity to learn from it.”
Though Berkstresser lost his backup job to Eddie Prinz last camp and now sits behind Mauk, Prinz, and two freshmen on the depth chart, his team still values him as a quarterback.
“He’s a guy that yeah, he’s not that 1 or 2 guy, but he has experience,” Mauk said. “There could be a situation where he has to go into the game and he’s going to be ready to go. Like I said, he’s played before, and now he’s kind of like a coach out there. He’s working alongside Drew, Eddie, even me.
“He knows the playbook. He’s been here for five years, and that’s where he can really help us out and do his job on helping us learn.”
Of course, he’d still like to play. Berkstresser has completed six of eight passes in Missouri’s two scrimmages, recording 103 passing yards and a touchdown. Though Missouri’s influx of talent at quarterback might limit his snaps — the Tigers have so many quarterbacks walk-on John Eierman switched to receiver — special teams gives Berkstresser a chance to see the field.
“I’d love to start, everybody else would,” he said. “But the way I look at it is I’m unselfish here and everything, so whatever’s best for the team — whether I’m a fifth-string quarterback, 10th-string quarterback, fourth punter — whatever it is, whatever’s best for the team. As long as we win, I really don’t care.”
Berkstresser, a beefy 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, played snaps on defense in high school as a 3-4 standup end and logged time on special teams. In 2013, he played two games on special teams for Missouri before injuring his knee in practice.
Hill said the team gave him trouble when he took a particularly big hit at Georgia that left a “grass stain for about five yards” on his white jersey, according to Hill.
“He’s tough,” Hill said. “And he’s not afraid to hit anybody.”
Since high school, however, Berkstresser’s main experience with contact has been “standing in the pocket and getting rocked,” so taking an aggressive approach to hitting has been an adjustment.
“You’ve got to go back to your basics,” he said. “It takes a little while to learn again, but once you get back to it it’s all technique and fundamentals.”
Berkstresser said he didn’t consider forgoing his final year of college football when playing time looked doubtful.
“To me, I’ve got five years here,” he said. “And if I would have walked away just to continue my studying, my degree in grad school, to me that’s like quitting. I know a lot of people don’t see it that way, but I see it that way, as quitting, and I don’t quit. I want to stick it out here and finish it where I started it.”
Berkstresser’s play in 2012 will likely be what Missouri fans will remember most, but if he could pick a legacy to leave in his final season, he’d like to be known as “a kid who stuck it out, never quit as a player, as a teammate, as a friend.”
He won’t have to worry about selling Hill.
“Corbin Berkstresser is the man,” Hill said. “… He’s done a fabulous job of taking care of the young guys, knowing what to do. He’s set a great (example). He’s in there probably working out right now, doing pushups and situps.
“He’s just a special guy, and we need guys like that to help our football team win.”
Special teams isn’t the only role Berkstresser has added this year. Hill said Berkstresser is in charge of keeping an eye on the quarterback coach’s daughter, who just moved into Responsibility Hall.
“He’s the lead guy,” Hill said. “You might think he’s a piece of carpet, but you’ll see a red dot on kids’ foreheads walking down the hallway. … He’s got a 24-hour watch. He takes four hours throughout the night, he’s ready to go.”
Though Hill won’t name names, Berkstresser has help on the job.
“She has 105 big brothers,” he said. “We have lots of eyes.”