COLUMBIA — It's a celebration.
Music pumps through the speakers, smiles spread across the faces of players who run through light drills and two graduated seniors, quarterback James Franklin and wide receiver Marcus Lucas, hang around the field to soak in the first Missouri football spring practice of 2014.
There's a lot to celebrate. Missouri wrote its own story of redemption in 2013, and coach Gary Pinkel and his staff were rewarded with raises and contract extensions as a result. So as the team went through a 2 1/2-hour practice Tuesday, the players felt like they were picking up right where they left off. That's certainly a much better feeling than Missouri had a year ago.
"Last year, we were like wounded animals," Pinkel said.
It's true. Missouri spent last spring trying to get healthy and wanting respect in the worst way. The Tigers had just been whipped in their first season in the Southeastern Conference, and their bodies and egos were bruised in the process.
Even with the added sense of purpose and confidence around the program after reaching the SEC Championship, the goals aren't much different. A pyramid still sits in Missouri's locker room. The block at the top, like it did last year, represents the BCS championship game. Conference championship, a division championship and a bowl game help make up the rest of the list of accomplishments on the Tigers' symbolic pyramid.
"We set a lot of goals around here," Pinkel said. "Those who set goals achieve more."
Missouri's last few blocks are still unfinished business. Under Pinkel, the Tigers have never won a conference championship, never been to the national championship and never won a BCS Bowl game. After last season, the expectation will be to repeat, or better yet, build on the success.
"Around here, usually people don't set goals that high," senior defensive end Markus Golden said. "The goals used to be just to get to a bowl game, and everybody would be happy. But now, it's not like that around here at Mizzou anymore. We want to go to the SEC Championship or better."
Those expectations are part of why Golden is standing on Faurot Field on Tuesday instead of preparing himself for the NFL Draft. He didn't even want to know what the NFL Draft Advisory Board said about his grade. Golden was sick of being a backup. With Kony Ealy and Michael Sam gone, he's ready to show what he can do with added responsibility.
"Of course, it’s a lot of pressure, but that’s what you want," Golden said. "You don’t want to be playing for a regular team and not have any pressure on you. To me, I love it. I love it. I love that I’m able to come back and start and show people what I can do."
As hard as they try, Missouri players can't shed the underdog role. They continue to feel disrespected, just with more confidence this time around. They're not exactly wounded animals anymore.
"We expect to be No. 1 in the country, not No. 5," senior defensive tackle Matt Hoch said. "We know we were so close to being the top team in the country. It only took one quarter, and unfortunately, we didn't pull it out at that time. We struggled defensively that game. It can happen. We're just so hungry to get back out there."
Practice winds down, and it's like Missouri never took two months off because most of them didn't. Senior wide receiver Darius White took reps with quarterback Maty Mauk indoors to work on timing. Junior defensive end Shane Ray even ran a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash recently, according to offensive tackle Mitch Morse.
The cranes continue to hover over Memorial Stadium as work on expanding the east side of the stadium continues. Millions of dollars are being poured into construction on the stadium, while a few million more were shelled out for the coaching staff. The football team showed it was serious about competing in the SEC, and the athletic department is attempting to follow suit.
Tuesday is about growth. It's about Missouri celebrating the growth it's already shown and establishing a standard for future growth. Now that Missouri has had success again, there's no reason to not repeat it.
"Nobody at Mizzou has an excuse," Golden says. "Guys that play backup need to come in and make plays just on the strength of what me and Shane (Ray) did. That's what you want around here. You want players who hold themselves to a high standard."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.