KANSAS CITY – For a team known for its dynamic and high-powered offense, its defense is receiving most of the preseason attention.
Missouri will enter the season ranked as high as No. 11 in preseason polls and with a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Brad Smith. The Missouri representatives at the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days, though, said if the team wants to continue its progression toward becoming a national contender, the defense must improve.
Coach Gary Pinkel said Tuesday that last year the defense made significant strides over the previous two years, but there is work to be done.
“If you want to be good, you have to perform defensively,” Pinkel said. “Hopefully, we can continue to make strides.”
Missouri has changed its basic defensive system to help meet those expectations. Pinkel said the Tigers made a switch to better suit the team’s personnel and to make the defense more versatile. Instead of a 4-4 base defense, the Tigers will use a 4-3 scheme.
In addition, the Tigers return nine defensive starters from a year ago. Senior defensive tackle Atiyyah Ellison said this experience should benefit the team.
“That plays a part in it, but just because you’ve played a position one year doesn’t make you excel unless you work at it,” Ellison said.
Ellison played defensive end his first year at Missouri and switched to defensive tackle last season. He said he is more confident entering this season because he feels more comfortable at tackle.
The improvement on defense is a necessary step for Missouri to reach the levels Pinkel set for the Tigers his first day in Columbia.
When Pinkel arrived in 2001, he showed the players a pyramid for success. Objectives included going to a bowl game every year, but Pinkel’s expectations went beyond bowl games.
“The top level is to win a national championship,” he said.
This pyramid program for success has worked in the past for Don James, for whom Pinkel assisted at Kent State and Washington, and for Pinkel at Toledo.
If the Tigers want to continue to meet their goals, they have to improve their run defense. Last season, Kansas State gained 367 yards on 69 carries in a 24-14 win, and Arkansas rushed for 300 yards in a 27-14 Independence Bowl win.
“Those games were basically, they ran the ball down our throats,” Ellison said. “We go back and watch those games, and you just get angry about it. At the time, you don’t realize what is happening as much.”
During spring practices, the Tigers, to prevent the angry feelings from returning, emphasized stopping the run.
“It’s just motivation, that’s our main goal in the spring,” senior linebacker James Kinney said. “I think we did a good job in the spring and improved from last year.”
Kinney led the Tigers with 147 tackles.
In response to the defensive improvement, the 2004 Media Preseason All-Big 12 Team rewarded the Tigers defense, placing two starters on the team. Junior defensive tackle C. J. Mosley joins Kinney as the Tigers’ representatives to the team. On offense, Smith is the Tigers’ only player.
HUMBLE HEISMAN HOPEFUL: If there were any doubts as to whether Smith is humble, he answered them when asked what he would do if he were in charge of a campaign promoting himself for the Heisman Trophy.
“If I had to have something?” Smith said. “I don’t want anything, but if I had to have something, it would be something very, very simple and plain and do my talking on the field.
“The Heisman Trophy is a great honor, and I’m grateful to be mentioned. But the game of football is about team, and the team deserves all the credit.”
MEDIA GUIDE MANIA: The Tigers also released their 2004 Media and Recruiting Guide. It is 614 pages and costs $25.