Refreshed Tigers return to practice

Saturday, December 15, 2007 | 8:08 p.m. CST; updated 10:57 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA — Seniors Martin Rucker and Lorenzo Williams had a little more to smile about than just returning to the football field. They were two of the handful of Tigers who would be exchanging pads and helmets for caps and gowns during their respective commencement ceremonies later in the day.

When asked if he was more excited about practice resuming or getting the degree, the answer was easy.

“My mom is standing right up there so I got to say graduating is what I am most excited about,” Williams, a general studies major, said.

Williams’ jovial mood was the norm inside the Dan Devine Pavilion as the No. 7-ranked Tiger football team reconvened for the first time in two weeks Saturday.

While the team took time off to study for finals and finish up the semester, others said they just needed a break. Time away from football seems to be what the team needed to re-focus itself and bring some good vibes back on to the field.

This practice had a spring ball feel to it according to head coach Gary Pinkel. Spirits were high and players were loose as his team tried to get back in a football frame of mind and work on fundamentals.

The team oozed enthusiasm while cracking jokes and whacking pads, even though two weeks ago the BCS passed over the Tigers, who finished No. 6 in the final BCS polls.

For the older players, it was harder to swallow considering that their playing careers at MU are on borrowed time. But, according to Rucker, the senior class’ loss could be the underclassmen’s gain.

“The younger guys get another shot at it and they know what it takes to get to there,” Rucker said.

Rucker was one of the more outspoken members of the team when Kansas and Illinois received BCS bids despite having both lost to MU. But any negative thoughts were tempered when coaches urged players to see the positive.

“We talked about that (the BCS) the next day but we are now focused on the great opportunity we have in front of us and finishing strong,” Pinkel said.

That opportunity is a New Year’s Day game against the Arkansas Razorbacks. It’s another nationally-televised game, and also serves as a sort of free recruiting promotion for MU in the high school football hotbed of Dallas.

A berth in the national title game was preferable, but players welcome the chance to up the Tigers’ national profile in the school’s biggest bowl game in over 30 years.

“It’s going to be great to go out there and show them what MU can do,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “A lot of guys can make their decisions based on that.”

Having just received his diploma, Rucker knows that the team will need to make the most of this opportunity if the Tiger program wants to graduate to one of the nation’s elite.

“We are trying to help build this program and if the Cotton Bowl helps, so be it,” Rucker said.

NOTES: Junior tight end Chase Coffman practiced in a red pullover after being held out of the Big 12 Championship game against Oklahoma with an injured ankle.

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