COLUMBIA — Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel said he doesn't want to compare sophomore linebacker Zaviar Gooden to former Tigers standout Sean Weatherspoon, that wouldn't be fair. But Pinkel can't help himself from doing it.
That's how impressive Gooden has been in the season's first two games.
Missouri's first-team defense has not allowed a point in the past five quarters it has been on the field, and Gooden has been integral to that success. Take the opponents Missouri has dominated for what they are, a team with a freshman quarterback and a lesser division team. But zero points is zero points.
For Missouri, there was not much to prove in its game against McNeese State, but for Gooden, every game is another test.
Gooden is tasked with replacing one of the best linebackers at Missouri in Weatherspoon, who was first team All-Big 12 three times. Gooden is only two starts into his collegiate career, and comparisons to Weatherspoon are premature, as Pinkel noted Monday. But Pinkel wouldn't rule out that Gooden could develop into a special player.
"The more he plays, the better he’s going to get," Pinkel said. "He has an outstanding future."
Gooden said he thinks he can reach the same level of the man he replaced. And to reach that level, Gooden worked on fundamentals this summer, refining the simple things.
"Last year, you know, I had the same talent, but my fundamentals weren't as good. So I really stressed that and became a better player," Gooden said. "I feel like I have a lot of room to grow, but if I work really hard I'm going to get there."
The talent that Gooden mentions involves speed. Gooden is fast. Crazy fast. Ignore linebackers, Gooden is one of the fastest players on the team. The team claims that Gooden ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds during winter workouts. If that number is accurate, Gooden as fast as freshman Henry Josey, but four inches taller and 45 pounds heavier.
In the first two games of the season, that speed has translated into tackles. If Aldon Smith, one of the best defensive players in the nation, doesn't make the tackle, chances are that Gooden will. It's not a surprise that Smith leads the Tigers in tackles with 14, but Gooden isn't far behind with 12.
"Zaviar Gooden is just as fast as any player on the team, and he's just as strong. Him playing linebacker, it's like having a defensive back in there when it's a passing down, and big enough to come down and fill up holes and make extremely physical tackles," cornerback Kevin Rutland said. "Having a player like that who is so explosive and so physical, you can't beat it. I love to watch him on film."
Pinkel said the key to the outside linebacker position is reaction time, and Gooden said that the more plays he sees on the field, the better his reaction time will be. For now, his speed can make up for any shortcomings he's yet to overcome.
"I mean confidence and experience are coming around, definitely," Gooden said. "Just having the knowledge of more plays and stuff, you know where they're trying to go, that helps. I can be better than what I am. I'm going to keep working hard ... staying hungry and I'm going to keep getting better."