James Kinney will likely set the career tackles record for Missouri on Saturday against Kansas or the week after against Iowa State.
That, though, is not the record he cares about most.
With the Tigers struggling with four straight Big 12 Conference losses, Kinney’s drive to break the tackles record has taken a backseat to the Tigers’ disappointing 4-5 record.
Kinney, a senior linebacker who has led Missouri in tackles the past two years, has received his share of attention this season. Kinney is a team captain and was a preseason All-American, All-Big 12 and Butkus Award candidate. The Butkus Award goes to the nation’s best linebacker.
Although he has not had many spectacular plays, getting one sack and four tackles for a loss, Kinney again leads the team in tackles with 84. If he maintains his 9.4 tackles per game pace, Kinney will easily get the 10 tackles he needs to break the all-time record of 415, held by Demontie Cross, a defensive back who played for Missouri from 1994-1996.
“It’ll be great, something you can always be remembered by to have your name in the record books, and hopefully it can stand for a while,” Kinney said. “Definitely I want to go out there and get those 10 tackles in these next two games.”
The record would cap the career of a player whose quiet demeanor off the field contradicts his reputation as an intense vocal leader in games.
Safety Jason Simpson, who also displays great energy on the field, said that he has been impressed playing behind Kinney on defense.
“He’s a ferocious competitor,” Simpson said. “He’s always been there to make plays. I have no doubt that he’s going to be the tackle leader after this year.”
Kinney came to Missouri in 2000 from Kankakee (Ill.) High and redshirted his first season. He first saw playing time in 2001 during coach Gary Pinkel’s first year at Missouri and started the last two games of the season, making 10 tackles in his first start against Baylor.
Since then, Kinney has taken his place as one of the best linebackers in the nation and this season leads a Tiger defense that ranks first in conference and 10th in the nation in total defense.
Kinney is one of the few Tigers left from the tenure of coach Larry Smith. He said it has been an interesting journey being with the program for the past five years.
“It’s been a roller coaster here, going through different coaches and just seeing the program grow and be respected,” he said. “It’s a lot of good and bad memories.”
Through the transitions and struggles of a program attempting to find national prominence, Kinney has remained a solid force in the middle of the Missouri defense.
Fellow linebacker and senior Hank Sweat has played alongside Kinney since they shared a redshirt season in 2000. Sweat broke a smile while talking about playing with Kinney.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Sweat said. “He’s a tremendous leader out there. He puts great pride into everything he does.”
The admiration for Kinney extends beyond his teammates.
Pinkel, who generally speaks in a reserved manner about most of his players, often praises the linebacker.
“I’m his biggest fan,” he said.
Although his tackles record will leave a mark in the record books in Missouri, it is Kinney’s team attitude that has won the admiration of Pinkel and his teammates.
“I think if you asked him certainly he would want (the record), but I think finishing his senior year out goes on top of the list for him,” Pinkel said.
Even with two wins to finish the season, 2004 will still end in disappointment for the Tigers. After starting the season ranked No. 17, Missouri must win its last two games to qualify for a bowl and can not top its seven wins from last season.
Kinney said the team’s difficult season would reduce the thrill of breaking the record.
“Obviously we have struggled as a team,” he said. “It’s already bittersweet. I’m pretty upset about how things went, but there’s nothing I can do about that right now.”
Sweat, who has spent more time playing next to Kinney than anyone, said he knows why Kinney never talks about the prospect of breaking the record.
“I think the important thing for him is to go out as a winner,” Sweat said. “If (breaking the record) is something that’s part of the process I think he’ll be happy with that.”