COLUMBIA — Kurtis Gregory has Chase Daniel's back.
When coach Gary Pinkel and his MU football team kicked off the 2008 season on Monday with the first preseason practice, the 6-foot-5-inch, 305-pound Gregory started preparing for his job this season: bodyguard for Tigers' quarterback Chase Daniel. It's a big job. Daniel enters his senior season after being named a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, leading MU to a 12-2 season, a victory in the Cotton Bowl and a No. 4 season-ending AP ranking.
"Don't let Chase get hit, and block for the running backs," is how Gregory described his job.
Gregory, a junior, takes over at tackle this season, a position which protects the quarterback's blind side from defensive linemen and blitzing linebackers. When Daniel turns to throw the ball down the field, he can't see the defenders that Gregory is responsible for blocking.
"I feel comfortable with it," Gregory said. "It's a confidence thing. I know I can do it, I just have to go out there and do it."
Many consider the tackle positon to be the most important on the offensive line. Gregory replaces four-year starter and All-Big 12 Conference third-team tackle Tyler Luellen. Last season, Gregory earned an honorable mention nod on the All-Big 12 team as the team's right guard.
"I feel very comfortable with Kurtis there," Daniel said. "He's had a great summer. He's got a lot bigger and stronger, and I'm excited about it."
When Gregory isn't serving as Daniel's bodyguard, he is putting in time on his family farm near Blackburn. The past two weekends, Gregory built a quarter-mile worth of fence with his dad and helped tend the family's 3-acre sweet corn field.
"Whenever I go home, I have to work. It makes me mad sometimes because I can't just lay around and do nothing," Gregory said.
Gregory said he enjoys hunting, fishing and his farm work and graduated in May with a degree in agricultural management.
"I haven't had too much luck in hunting," Gregory said. "I shot a little button buck and a little ugly seven-point buck that had its antlers all taken off."
One of the hardest adjustments for Gregory was moving from small-time high school to the demands of Big 12 football. In high school, his coaches went with the keep everything simple method. In college, his coaches demand that he be able to read every defense and know what's about to happen.
"I've been watching a lot of film," Gregory said. "You see the saftey at 15 yards, he's not coming. When he's 6 yards away, that means he's coming,"
This season, if he missreads one play, it could result in Daniel pulling himself off the turf with a mask full of dirt and a sore body the next day.
"It's all about communication out there," Gregory said. "When you see us moving our arms around, that means we're talking."
During offensive drills, when Daniel looked to his right for the first time and saw 6-foot-5-inch, 210-pound freshman tight end Michael Egnew wearing former All-American Martin Rucker's number 82 jersey, Daniel had to do a double-take.
"That's not Martin Rucker," Daniel shouted to his teammates, which resulted in other teammates joining in the heckling of the freshman about wearing Rucker's number.
Senior linebacker Van Alexander, a Rock Bridge High School graduate, practiced for the first time after recovering from knee surgery.
"Van's cleared to go through all practices," Pinkel said.
Alexander struggled through a few drills, showing a limp while wearing a red jersey that indicates he is still hurting.
Junior wide receiver Danario Alexander also donned the red jersey but did not participate in practice. Danario Alexander is recovering from a torn ACL which he suffered during the Big 12 championship game.
"Danario is still one to two weeks away from starting to run," Pinkel said.
Before the first practice, the Tigers named their team captains for the 2008 season. They are seniors Daniel, William Moore, Tommy Saunders and Ziggy Hood.
"That's coming straight from the team saying that they believe in you." Daniel said. "They want us leading this team."