KANSAS CITY – Gary Pinkel made it clear at Thursday’s Big 12 Conference Football Media Day that he is tired and hungry.
Those were the words Pinkel, Missouri’s coach, used to describe his feelings entering his third season with the Tigers.
“This has been very painful to me,” Pinkel said. “I wanted to go undefeated my first season. I’m glad these two years are over.”
Pinkel’s enthusiasm was nearly as apparent, though.
And why not?
The Tigers return eight starters each on offense and defense, including sophomore quarterback Brad Smith.
“Certainly, it was a little different standing here a year ago,” Pinkel said. “I had no clue at this point who was going to start at quarterback. Knowing you have a guy that’s an impact player, you want that your whole life as a football coach.”
There is no doubt Smith, who last season became the second player in NCAA Division I football to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a season, is the Tigers’ poster boy. He is the focus of most of the Tigers’ preseason buzz, and his teammates are well aware of it.
With Smith sitting to his left, senior center A.J. Ricker fielded questions for about 15 minutes. More than half of them were about Smith. The overwhelming focus on Smith was so obvious that a reporter asked Smith whether he had gotten used to being the focus of most of the questions asked of him and his teammates. Smith responded as humbly as ever.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sort of. It’s kind of weird because there’s more than just me on the team.”
Smith’s humble, gentlemanly attitude almost made Pinkel leery of recruiting him out of Chaney High in Youngstown, Ohio.
“When I was visiting him, he was a little too nice,” Pinkel said. “As a quarterback, you have to have a little moxie. You just wondered about when he got on the field. But when he puts that helmet on, there’s a transformation.
“He says ‘Yes, sir,’ and “No, sir,’ to me so much I feel like telling him to shut up. But when he puts that helmet on, he’s a gladiator.”
Despite all the focus on Smith, Pinkel knows the key to Missouri’s improvement lies on defense. Pinkel said the Tigers have improved during his tenure at Missouri, but it hasn’t shown up in their record. In 2001, Missouri went 4-7. A much better Tigers team went 5-7 last season but lost three games by seven points.
“How do you take the next step? Well, you’ve got to play better defense,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel spoke about inheriting a defense in shambles when he arrived at Missouri.
“We had serious defensive personnel issues when I got here,” Pinkel said. “(Assistant coach) David Yost, who was analyzing our personnel, called me and said, ‘We have one cornerback on scholarship.’ It was like a sack full of rocks hit me in the side of the face.”
Pinkel has persistently recruited speed on defense and feels as though the talent level and depth are greatly improved. Ricker and Smith, who practiced against the defense this spring, agreed. Smith said the defensive backs are faster and break on the ball more quickly than last season. Ricker said the defensive linemen and linebackers are stronger and more mobile.
Like his coach, Ricker is not willing to accept moral victories.
“I think we’ve made huge strides from last year, but we’re not there yet,” Ricker said. “We still have to prove ourselves. The last time I checked we didn’t have a winning record last year.”
The Tigers start practicing Wednesday, and Ricker said an attitude change will be among the differences in this season’s team.
“We’re definitely a hungry team,” Ricker said. “We’re gonna give 110 percent, and we’re gonna have fun doing it. We haven’t had a lot of fun around here lately, but hopefully that’s going to change.”
POLL POSITION: With a month left before the games begin, the polls are in full swing. Media covering the Big 12 released its predictions this week, and Missouri fared well.
Smith, Ricker and senior offensive tackle Rob Droege were picked to the preseason All-Big 12 Team. Smith, who beat out Kansas State’s Ell Roberson, set a school record last season with 3,362 total yards and was named National Freshman of the Year.
The media picked the Tigers to finish fourth in the Big 12 North, ahead of Iowa State and Kansas and up one spot from last season’s finish. Kansas State was picked to win the division, and Oklahoma was picked to win the South Division.
POLL POSITION II: The Tigers received 12 points in the USA Today/ESPN preseason Top 25 poll released Thursday.
The Tigers are ranked 44th. Oklahoma is No. 1, Texas is fourth and Kansas State is fifth.
Oklahoma State is 24th. Colorado, Texas A&M and Nebraska were unranked but received more votes than the Tigers.
UP CLOSE: Fan Day is set for Aug. 9 from 3:30-5 p.m. at Memorial Stadium. Fans can meet MU players and coaches and get autographs and pictures with them. Fans will be able to walk on the new FieldTurf and can buy tickets.