COLUMBIA — The question is simple, but the simplicity brings opportunity. And it's the opportunity that makes it stick.
Almost every member of the Missouri defense mentions it when talking about the tenacity their new coordinator has brought to their side of the ball. It's the question that he constantly asks. And it's become their mantra.
"Who do you want to be?"
The question lies at the center of the new-look of Missouri's defensive effort to create a new attitude and legacy. And the answer starts with the man asking it.
Dave Steckel is defined by intensity. He's a former Marine. He rarely cracks a smile. During a game week, it's all business.
"He's not messing around," sophomore linebacker Andrew Gachkar said. "He's a straight shooter. If you're not on the same page, he'll get you on the same page."
The intensity at the top for the Missouri defense is nothing new. Safety Kenji Jackson says that former coordinator Matt Eberflus was an "uptempo guy" in his own right. The difference is the coach's proximity to his players.
Eberflus spent games up in the press box, sending down calls and observing the field from an elevated view. Steckel is right down in the action, addressing his players before the game and after each series.
"If you have a defensive coordinator sending the calls down from downstairs then it's kind of like, 'OK, get your job done,'" junior cornerback Kevin Rutland said. "But when you have a guy that's in your face and has just as much energy as anybody playing the game, and is also calling the shots? You can't beat that."'
Gachkar said the defense requested that Steckel keep his position on the sideline that he has had during his previous eight seasons as the team's linebackers coach. The result has been Steckel's sideline demeanor seeping into his players.
"We like to feed off of his tenacity and his drive, and to show everyone where we should be at," Gachkar said. "We should be matching what he has."
And while mirroring Steckel begins with intensity, it ends with building relationships. Senior defensive end Brian Coulter says that Steckel expects excellence. When someone misses an assignment, Steckel is quick to let them hear about it. But beyond the yelling, the occasional criticism and the steely exterior, it's evident that Coulter's coach still cares.
"He kind of caught me off guard one time (after a win) because he walked up to me like a baby, had his arms wide open, big smile on his face," Coulter said. "I was kinda confused at the same time, like, 'I don't know. What should I do? Should I give him a hug, or what?' He came up to me, gave me a hug and he was all smiles and jokes. And it kind of shocked me because I never saw that side of him before."
Coulter said that he has trouble comparing Eberflus and Steckel. As a backup last season Coulter didn't have much interaction with Eberflus. And neither did plenty of other current Missouri starters.
Missouri's current defense features two senior starters. It has eight players starting at new positions. With all the unknowns lining the depth chart, the most intriguing element of asking "Who do you want to be?" is that the answer is, "Whoever we want."
"It definitely helps that we have a lot of young guys out there, guys that are trying to find their identity," senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "Because as a defense we're trying to find our identity."
Over the past few seasons that identity has involved being the weak link of a contender. The Tigers returned 10 starters last season, and those players brought back expectations that an improved defense could vault the program to a new level. Then Illinois quarterback Juice Williams shredded the Tigers for 451 yards and five touchdowns en route to 42 points in the team's first game.
This season, the Tigers have given up 41 combined points in its first three games, and that includes having to defend a short field on several different occasions after turnovers in the win over Bowling Green, and allowing a couple late scores against Furman after the game had been decided.
"Everyone out here is young, and they all want to get their opportunity to show everyone who they want to be," Gachkar said.
Who the Missouri defense wants to be goes beyond what will happen this season. It wants to go beyond being a defense. It wants to be the defense, as in the defense that brings new expectations to defense at Missouri. It wants to leave a legacy.
Weatherspoon will have a lofty legacy of his own. He will be a Butkus Award Finalist, and maybe the best linebacker to ever play at Missouri. What excites him about the defense's attention to Steckel's question is that its answer will be about how everyone will be remembered.
"It means a lot," Weatherspoon said. "Once you're finished playing you go down in history. Whoever played on that defense will be remembered for what that defense accomplished."
Rutland knows exactly what he wants those accomplishments to include.
"Who do you want to be?" Rutland said. "You want to be a great defense? Just an average defense? An OK defense? No. We want to be the best there's ever been at Missouri."