Most important changes of 2004: #4

InsideMizzou continues its countdown of the 10 most important changes from last season to this year. No. 4 explores the potential of Missouri's heralded quarterback, which has brought discussion of a certain postseason award.

There is no need for the Missouri Athletic Department to start a "Brad Smith for Heisman" campaign. His play speaks for itself.

Smith, the Tigers' humble junior quarterback, would want to keep it that way. Although the AD does plan to launch a web site soon to promote Smith, it would be an understatement to say the campaign will be understated.

Nearly every outlet lists Smith as a Heisman candidate, with ESPN's SportsCenter naming him the show's No. 2 choice, behind Darren Sproles of Kansas State. For his part, Smith has taken the brighter spotlight in stride.

"I'm honored, very honored to be mentioned with those other great football players," Smith said. "I'm just looking forward to playing my best and hopefully we win some games."

Mostly due to the team's struggles over the past 30 years, it has been quite a while since a Tiger drew extended Heisman consideration. Just as rare is Smith earning preseason Heisman talk as a junior, especially as the leader of a team that has gone just 13-12 with him in command.

Of course, if that statistic does not improve, Smith will rapidly fall off the Heisman radar.

"It takes team success," Smith said. "If you don't win games, you don't win it anyways. So that's my goal."

Had the Tigers been more successful, Smith would have likely done enough in his first two seasons to draw serious Heisman consideration. Smith already ranks in the top 25 in total offense and rushing yards by a quarterback in the NCAA, with two full seasons remaining. He already owns the Missouri total offense record, amassing a mind-boggling 6,475 yards.

Often downgraded because of an arm perceived to be weak and inconsistent, Smith actually has thrown just 13 interceptions in 716 career attempts, a Missouri record of one pick in every 55 throws. He even managed 230 total yards against the vaunted Oklahoma defense last season, just days after rolling up 419 yards against the less impressive Texas Tech defense.

Despite the departure of stalwart TB Zack Abron, Smith still has plenty of weapons to help take some of the pressure off him. Junior Damien Nash and freshman Marcus Woods present a dual threat out of the backfield, in essence giving the Tigers three potentially dominant tailbacks coming out of the backfield, including Smith.

"They just go make plays," Smith said. "We're just all working together. The whole offense just wants to go out there and make plays for each other."

That selfless attitude should carry over to the receiving corps, which also lost its top contributor in Darius Outlaw. The starters remain senior Thomson Omboga, junior Sean Coffey and sophomore Brad Ekwerekwu, all of whom have shown flashes of being reliable targets. Smith also has two reliable receivers coming off the line, with surprise starter freshman TE Martin Rucker and senior Victor Sesay.

"We have a lot of talented guys, guys who go up and get the ball and want to make plays," Smith said. "I'm looking forward to working with them and them working hard as well."

With Smith entering his fourth season in the Missouri program, the expectation levels have risen significantly, for both Smith as an individual and the Tigers as a whole. Coach Gary Pinkel and the rest of the staff have continually reiterated to the team to remain focused and try to see through the hype.

"It's a little different (this year)," Smith said. "Every time we come out and compete, we do our best to win. But not much has changed really for us, on the inside."

Smith now must grapple with several levels of expectations: leading Missouri to another bowl game, establishing a more dangerous passing game and proving to the country that he is, in fact, one of college football's premier signal callers. That extra attention has given Smith ample opportunity to determine what he must do to meet those goals.

"It has helped me become more focused on what my team needs to do and what I need to do to help my team," he said.

Check back tomorrow as our countdown continues with No. 3.

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