COLUMBIA — Even Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel can’t help himself.
When asked about Zaviar Gooden, before he says anything else, Pinkel repeats the phrase that has become ubiquitous when describing Gooden.
Miami (Ohio) 10-4, 7-1 MAC in 2010
at Missouri 10-3, 6-2 Big 12 in 2010
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM, KCMQ/96.7 FM
TV: Fox Sports
NOTE: Missouri coach Gary Pinkel went 3-3-1 in seven appearances against the Redhawks during his 10-year tenure as head coach at Toledo (1991-2000)
“I think he is kind of a freak athlete,” he says.
Over and over, whenever anyone involved with the Missouri football program speaks about Gooden, the word freak is inevitably used to describe the linebacker’s size, speed and ability. Last season, he put those attributes to use on the field, leading the team with 85 tackles and anchoring a much-improved defensive unit.
Gooden was recruited out of Pflugerville, Texas, as a safety, and when he arrived at Missouri before the 2008 season, he weighed less than 200 pounds. Still, teammate and fellow linebacker Will Ebner remembers being impressed with Gooden as a physical specimen.
“He still looked like he was a grown man when he showed up,” Ebner said. “If I wouldn’t have known, I would have thought he was a senior when he first got here.”
After a year on the practice squad, the coaches decided to move Gooden to linebacker. It was then that the man in charge of the weight room, Pat Ivey, the Missouri associate athletics director for athletic performance, transformed a good athlete into an impressive one.
But Ivey doesn’t want the credit. Although he and his staff designed workouts and a special diet to increase Gooden’s muscle mass, Ivey says Gooden did most of it on his own.
“Zaviar is a person that doesn’t need much external motivation,” Ivey said. “Some people need to come by your office and have you ask them how their day was. Zaviar’s the kind of guy that you just give him the work and he says 'thanks, coach' and goes and does it.”
Gooden currently checks in at 230 pounds of what seems like pure muscle when you look at him. His biceps are so big, it’s almost impossible not to be distracted by them while talking to him. Even his teammates are distracted inside the weight room.
“You walk around (the weight room) and all of the sudden you look over and you see he’s got a couple extra 45s on there,” linebacker Andrew Wilson said, shaking his head.
Gooden’s size, though, might not even be his most impressive quality. It’s his speed. Pinkel said Gooden runs a 4.3 second 40-yard dash. To put that in perspective, former Missouri standout linebacker and first-round NFL draft pick Sean Weatherspoon ran a 4.68 at the 2010 NFL Combine.
The speed allows Gooden to run step for step with just about any tight end in the country and a lot of wide receivers. Having a linebacker that can drop back in coverage gives Missouri the flexibility to blitz more and run a greater variety of defensive schemes.
“He’s blessed with the most athletic ability of anyone on the team as far as size and speed go,” Ebner said. “His ceiling is limitless.”
In person, Gooden isn't what you might expect. Behind a bushy beard is a wide smile and a quiet style that welcomes rather than intimidates. Talking to him, Gooden seems much more mature than the typical college football player.
“He’s a great person,” Ebner said. “When you can play alongside someone that you know is a great person, it makes that relationship between you and him on and off the field better, and you play better together.”
Before last season, casual fans had no idea what to expect from this safety-turned-linebacker. Learning the position took time for Gooden.
“Playing safety, basically all you had to know was the coverage. All I looked for was for them to signal in the coverage, and I was ready to play,” Gooden said. “Now I have to know what the defensive line’s doing. I have to know the coverage, and I have to know what the linebackers are doing, so it’s like three positions in one.”
Apparently, Gooden learned quickly enough, though. What Missouri fans got in 2010 was a tackling machine that also had a knack for making big plays.
“You could tell it just snapped and everything was clicking for him,” linebacker Luke Lambert said. “He knew what he was doing. He was trusting what he was thinking and he made plays.”
Gooden is poised to be even better in 2011, said Pinkel, who thinks the year of experience can only help Gooden.
“He’s a lot better player than he was a year ago,” Pinkel said. “That’s that position a little bit, that’s the instincts of it and how difficult that position is to play.”
The first place he can improve is in his opening game, though that might be tough. Gooden had eight tackles against Illinois in the 2010 opener.
One thing is for sure about Saturday's opener. Miami (Ohio) won’t have any trouble figuring out which linebacker is “the freak.”