It is a Saturday night at the 'Zou, and Blaine Gabbert is in the shotgun, six yards behind his offensive linemen, five receivers staggered beside them, Missouri trailing Oklahoma in the fourth quarter by a point. Gabbert catches the snap, darts back three steps then leans his entire being forward into a pass that travels 26 yards up the seam toward receiver Jerrell Jackson, who spins free of two defenders and sprints for six points. Of Gabbert's 933 throws and 40 touchdowns as a collegian, this bullet might be his best. "It put us up and gave us the momentum to win the game," he says of the Tigers' 36--27 victory over the No. 1--ranked Sooners last October. "That was a trademark one."
In that one play Gabbert showed the accuracy, timing, arm strength and poise that elevated him to the top of several draft boards this spring. But because that throw and most others came from the shotgun formation of a spread offense—which does not demand the same footwork, downfield passing and other complexities of a pro-style attack—some evaluators project Gabbert to be taken later in the top 10, behind Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton of Auburn.
"Learning the [pro-style offense] terminology is just a process, getting it down and making it second nature, and that has gone pretty well," says Gabbert, who worked this spring with quarterback guru Terry Shea for nine weeks at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix and another week in Columbia, Mo. "It's been a smooth transition."
While Gabbert lacks experience—not only hasn't he played much in a pro set, but he also declared for the NFL draft as a junior, after just two years as a starter—his size (6'4½", 234 pounds) and speed (4.62 in the 40-yard dash) are impossible to overlook. Shea says he quickly grasped the pro style's nuances during their tutoring sessions. "The first day we went through the mechanics of dropping back, he separated from center so quickly and efficiently," says Shea, whose recent pupils have included Sam Bradford (taken No. 1 by the Rams last year), Matthew Stafford (the first pick in 2009, by the Lions) and Josh Freeman (the 17th pick in '09 and now the Buccaneers' starter). "Then we'd go in the classroom, and I'd present a play on the board and say, 'Now you teach me,' and he'd rifle through them. I don't see why he couldn't go through a four-progression read. The game at the NFL level is not going to be too big for him."
Says one scout, "People don't think [Gabbert] can go vertical, but if you study his whole body of work, you see he can go downfield." In Gabbert's first collegiate start, a 37--9 victory over Illinois in 2009, he passed for 319 yards and three touchdowns. "He went downfield, and he was accurate," the scout says. "He hit a receiver right between the numbers, 35 yards downfield. His 18-yard out was deadly. It was a rocket."
Later in that 2009 season Gabbert memorably played through an ankle injury when Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh flattened him as he tried to escape the pocket. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel remembers Gabbert later coming into his office clearly hobbled. "I told him, 'I'm thinking about not playing you [next week],' and he looked at me and said, 'Coach, I've got to play. I give us the best chance to win,'" Pinkel recalls. "I was taken aback. You have a guy who just has so much toughness."
He developed that toughness as the oldest of three brothers (including Tyler, a redshirt freshman QB at Missouri) growing up in Ballwin, Mo. On a family fishing trip off Singer Island in Florida, 12-year-old Blaine pulled an eight-foot bull shark onboard and helped the crew wrestle it into submission. Gabbert's father, Chuck, describes it as "one of those man-versus-wild moments."
The kid will be facing plenty more of those in the NFL.
PETER KING'S MOCK DRAFT