Entering the season ranked for the first time since 1980, the Missouri football team has high expectations placed on it.
But no one’s standards for the Tigers are higher than those of coach Gary Pinkel.
Pinkel came to Missouri with the goal of building a high level program, and in his book that means challenging for championships. So, the No. 18 Tigers begin the season Saturday at Memorial Stadium at 6 p.m. against Arkansas State not content with the ranking, but rather looking to improve.
Pinkel said with the season set to begin, his team can put all the expectations behind them.
“All the talk’s over with, all the hype is over with,” Pinkel said. “That’s the greatest thing about this week, all the stuff that has been going on doesn’t mean anything, and it hasn’t meant anything.”
For the Tigers to improve on last season’s 8-5 record, Pinkel said they must continue to develop defensively and elevate the passing game. Missouri led the Big 12 Conference in rushing, but ranked seventh offensively overall.
“To reach a high level as a football team, we have to improve the passing game,” Pinkel said.
The Tigers have worked extensively on the passing game during fall workouts, allowing young receivers the opportunity to get noticed.
Redshirt freshman Martin Rucker made the most of the opportunity, passing senior Victor Sesay to become the No. 1 tight end.
“He’s had a very good two-a-days. He’s obviously a very good athlete,” Pinkel said. “He’s a bright young man, he learns well, he just has a lot going for him and Victor will still play.”
Missouri should have a good opportunity to further develop the passing game against the Indians, who are starting six new players on defense, and eight members of Arkansas State’s second defensive unit are also newcomers.
Arkansas State coach Steve Roberts is pleased with his young team’s development.
“Our players have really responded extremely well,” Roberts said. “We have a very, very young team, they know the challenges that lie ahead of them. When you have five or six freshman playing, there’s not a whole lot of people behind them who have any experience at all.”
Although the Indians are young, Pinkel said that could be a good thing for ASU.
“They have young players on defense, but sometimes that’s good,” Pinkel said. “We’re starting three redshirt freshmen on our offense, and I feel OK about that. So I think they feel good about that also.”
Pinkel said he wants to further improve the Missouri defense. The team has switched to a 4-3 scheme to help the unit perform on a consistent basis.
In the new scheme, preseason All-Big 12 linebacker James Kinney will be teamed with sophomores Dedrick Harrington and David Richard. Harrington played safety last season and Richard sat out after transferring from Michigan State where he led the Spartans in rushing as a freshman in 2002.
Pinkel said the two new linebackers help form the most athletic linebacking unit he has coached.
“Both of them are playing new positions and athletically they are the mold,” Pinkel said. “You would clone those athletes and have them in there, the rest of your career…I’m very encouraged at how they’ve worked in practice and how much better they’ve become.”
The new scheme was designed to help the Tigers stop the run and Pinkel said the Indians run the ball well and are very athletic, which could provide Missouri’s defense a tough test.
Arkansas State, though, is missing its second leading rusher from last season. Chris Easley, who ran for 508 yards, was injured during spring practice. The Indians, however, do return Antonio Warren and Shermar Bracey who combined for 976 rushing yards.
Arkansas State will also be breaking in a new quarterback after three-year starter Elliot Jacobs quit the team over the summer to concentrate on baseball .
Roberts said the team lost considerable experience with Jacobs, but the young quarterbacks have impressed him, and he expects junior Nick Noce to produce more big plays than the Jacobs.
“I could not be more excited about the play of our quarterbacks right now,” Roberts said during the Sun Belt Conference call on Monday. “I have to qualify that statement to some degree because we have not played an opponent yet.”
Roberts said Noce has improved taking care of the football. Last season Noce completed 8-of-31 passes with seven interceptions and no touchdowns.