Brad Smith keeps telling people he’s not the only player on the team.
There are five guys who line up in front of Smith who are crucial to his, and the team’s, success.
The Missouri football team begins its fall practices today and the Tigers are expected to rely heavily on Smith, a sophomore quarterback from Youngstown, Ohio.
Smith’s strong right arm, quick feet and powerful legs carried Missouri’s offense last season, and the expectations are higher this fall, but Smith wouldn’t be too effective without the offensive linemen who protect him.
Luckily for Smith, the Tigers return six linemen with starting experience, providing remarkable depth to fill five slots. Two of the stalwarts, senior center A.J. Ricker and senior tackle Rob Droege, have been heaped with preseason honors, including being named to the All-Big 12 Conference Team.
Last season, the same offensive line helped Smith become the second player in Division I to rush for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 yards in the same season.
Everyone from that line is back with another year of experience, and, more important, a year of playing together.
“The offensive line is a group that needs to jell,” Ricker said. “We’re a group of guys that hang out and do stuff together, and we work hard together. I know exactly where my guards are going to be and what they are going to do. That’s very important.”
The wild card to the offense’s success lies in the receiving corps. All-America receiver Justin Gage’s eligibility ran out. He accounted for more than 40 percent of the Tigers’ receptions and receiving yards last season.
Gary Pinkel, Missouri’s third-year coach, knows there is no quick fix for losing such an asset.
“When you’ve got a 1,000-yard receiver, with the amount of plays he made, you’ve got to replace that,” Pinkel said. “We’ve got to find our playmakers. You don’t just miraculously say, ‘Well, we’re going to fill Justin Gage’s spot.’ That doesn’t happen.”
The only possible solution, Pinkel said, is to spread the ball around more. That means wide receivers Darius Outlaw, Marcus James, Thomson Omboga and Sean Coffey and tight end J.D. McCoy, all of whom have starting experience, will have to be more involved.
Also, the running game, which Smith and senior running back Zack Abron anchor, will have to shoulder some of the load. Smith and Abron combined for 1,978 rushing yards last season.
All the offensive output will be for naught, though, if the Tigers don’t improve on defense. Missouri ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 in every defensive category and ranked last in pass defense.
Despite returning eight players with starting experience on defense, the Tigers could start as many as five defensive players with no Division I experience.
“People say sometimes, ‘This team has eight starters or nine starters coming back on a particular side,’ but when your starters coming back are average players, it doesn’t matter if they’re coming back or not, you don’t get better,”’ Pinkel said.
Pinkel said the Tigers have improved on defense, but not because of the returning starters alone. He said the personnel changes and improved depth are the keys to the defense’s success.
“Are we going to be a super defense, with super personnel this year?” Pinkel said. “No. Are we going to be significantly better than last year? I don’t think there’s any question we’ll be significantly better than we have been the past two years.”
Much of the improved depth is because Pinkel moved David Overstreet, Shirdonya Mitchell and Earl Stephens from offense. Pinkel said the Tigers will also rely on several players who had limited roles last season.
“We’ve changed our depth a lot,” Pinkel said. “We’ve got more competition than we’ve ever had. We were depleted on defense when we got here, and it has been a struggle to get out.”
The secondary will get the biggest boost. Overstreet, a former quarterback, and Nino Williams, a junior college All-American, will bolster the safety position. At cornerback, sophomore Calvin Washington, who redshirted last season, and seniors Terrence Curry, who missed the past two seasons with injuries, and Mitchell, who moved from wide receiver, are expected to compete for playing time.