COLUMBIA — For Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel, the word of the day on Tuesday was enthusiasm.
It was a fitting word, a good description of the joking, yelling and chanting crowd that took the field in the Devine Pavilion. It wasn’t intense. It wasn’t perfect. But the Missouri Tigers football team was enthusiastic about its first day of spring practice.
"We talk ... a lot in the offseason about how we play a whole lot better when we play with great enthusiasm,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel’s 2011 team took the field with just a few changes, the most noticeable of which was the absence of former quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who opted to enter this year’s NFL draft. Gabbert’s absence and the hole it creates are the question on most fans’ minds, but Pinkel and his team are looking at the situation differently.
Pinkel said this year’s team is one of the most experienced he’s seen. With many returning starters, he said he thinks whoever earns the quarterback job— James Franklin, Tyler Gabbert or Ashton Glaser— will have a solid core behind him.
“The thing that this quarterback is going to have, he’s probably going to have more experience around him than any other first-year starting quarterback … that I’ve ever coached,” Pinkel said.
When will he decide who will be the team's next starting quarterback? Pinkel didn’t have an answer. He said that the decision will happen when it happens, when one of the candidates has clearly proven himself superior. Each is intelligent, has a good arm and good speed, and Pinkel said that there’s no time frame for his decision.
While some people might look at the competition at quarterback as a cause for worry, Pinkel sees it as the opposite. For years, he’s had either a returning starter or a clear successor at the position, but he’s not worried. The competition that’s going on now isn’t the result of a lack of talent but better recruiting, he said.
Sophomore wide receiver T.J. Moe added that not having a clear starting quarterback has little to no effect on the offense. He said his main concern this spring is to become even more of a team leader and to help the freshmen and redshirt freshmen adjust to the offense.
“We’ve got a bunch of new kids, too … and there’s a lot of guys out here having fun,” Moe said. “We’re trying to teach them just like they’re trying to learn.”
The defense faces a similar situation. Without defensive end Aldon Smith, linebacker Andrew Gachkar and cornerbacks Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, there are holes to fill. However, the depth of returning players, especially at linebacker, is encouraging.
Linebackers Will Ebner, Luke Lambert and Donovan Bonner, who each suffered from injuries in 2010, are poised to return. Ebner and Lambert are still listed as injured, but Pinkel said there’s a good chance both could be playing by April.
Linebacker Zaviar Gooden said he’s excited for the increased depth at linebacker this season. He added that injuries have also allowed for younger players to see a lot more reps with the first-team defense and improve their skills.
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m glad that they’re hurt, but it’s going to give a lot of these young guys a chance to learn and play more; in case anything does happen to anyone during the season, they’ll be ready,” Gooden said.
That’s the thing. When it comes to the Tigers’ upcoming season, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the negatives — who graduated, who left for the draft. As hard as it might be to adjust to the absences of Gabbert, Smith, center Tim Barnes and others, the team is returning enough starters to remain competitive.
“This is a deep team,” Moe said. “People don’t know it yet. We look 100 times better today than we did this time last year.”
There will definitely be challenges. Big ones — finding a quarterback, adjusting to a new center and getting linebackers completely healthy. But for now, the challenges are small.
Pinkel said the team is starting from scratch, getting back into form. And there will be mistakes. There will be dropped passes and botched drills. There will be missed tackles and slower sprints. But chances are, it will all get better, and for now, there's Pinkel's word: enthusiasm.
“It’s getting back to the basics,” Pinkel said.