Judging from Monday’s first practice, coach Gary Pinkel’s recruiting efforts have started to yield dividends.
Pinkel and the Missouri football team began preseason practices at Memorial Stadium with what Pinkel called his most competitive team since arriving at Missouri.
“We probably have more competition on this field than we’ve ever had,” Pinkel said. “That’s the way it should be if you’re developing players and recruiting well.”
The team’s added depth is one of the reasons the Tigers earned the No. 17 ranking in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Preseason Poll, their first preseason ranking since 1980. The Tigers played to an 8-5 record last season (4-4 in the Big 12 Conference) and appeared in the Independence Bowl, losing to Arkansas 27-14.
“I don’t think we have great depth right now; I think it takes years to develop high-level depth,” Pinkel said. “But I certainly think athletically we’re a different football team.”
Pinkel also said it is his job to translate that depth into a strong team before the Tigers host Arkansas State on Sept. 4 to begin the season.
Wide receiver is one of the positions that will offer intriguing competition. The wide receivers struggled at times last season, but the Tigers have 17 players listed as wide receivers on the roster.
In drills, senior wide receiver Thomson Omboga faced longer lines than previous seasons when he said he practiced with about 10 others.
“You can tell there’s a lot of competition out there,” Omboga said. “They’ve recruited a lot of fast guys that can play the position. You have to be out there ready.”
Omboga led the Tigers with 52 catches and 466 yards. Junior Sean Coffey is the next best returning receiver, finishing 2003 with 27 receptions.
Omboga said he spent most of his summer working with junior quarterback Brad Smith catching passes that amounted to “too many to count.”
Pinkel said he expects a lot of competition at wide receiver, and he likes it that way.
“We need play-makers. We need consistency catching. We need guys that are going to go out and make plays,” he said. “I think the more players in your offense that are skill players, that handle the ball, you can circle and say they are high-level players, the more difficult you are to stop.
“That’s our challenge. We need to find that out.”
Wide receiver isn’t the only position that had its depth develop. Even though Smith, a Heisman Trophy candidate, remains the solid starter at quarterback, the Tigers have three up-and-coming freshman behind him.
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Darrell Jackson, Mack Breed and Chase Patton, who went to Rock Bridge High, likely won’t take many game snaps away from Smith but should push him in practice. The Tigers also have Brandon Coleman, a sophomore, to serve as Smith’s backup.
Smith said the competition at his position is necessary for the team to improve.
The Tigers practiced Monday without pads, but that doesn’t mean Pinkel allowed his players an easy day.
“We don’t ease into anything, so that’s not in my vocabulary,” Pinkel said. “We practice fast whether we use pads or not, and we practice quick.”
The Tigers spent a portion of the nearly 2½- hour practice running basic drills, which are new and necessary for the freshmen.
“You do get sort of bored every now and then, sitting in the meetings going over the same thing I’ve heard for four years,” Omboga said. “But that’s part of the game. Everybody got to sit through it, and you just reiterate, ‘You never cannot learn.’ So you just learn all the old stuff all over again and maybe get better.”
The non-contact practice included seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 scrimmages.