Most important changes of 2004: #3

InsideMizzou continues its countdown of the 10 most important changes from last season to this year. Coming in at No. 3 is the coaching staff's attempt to expand the passing game, which hopes to equal the success of Missouri's rushing attack of the past few seasons.

Now that training camp is over, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has five words for his team: "Go out and do it."

Nowhere is that dictum more relevant than in the passing game. The Tigers spent much of the fall retooling their aerial attack, but now the opener is just three days away and time is running short. While many faces remain the same, a few new wrinkles have been added to improve the passing attack.

"We've worked very hard at it," Pinkel said Monday. "I expect us to be better there. We will evaluate it as it goes on. We've worked very hard at it, and I'll be disappointed if we don't have significant improvement in it."

One of the most intriguing changes is the expanded use of a two-tight end set. With the emergence of freshman Martin Rucker this fall, the coaching staff will use Rucker and senior Victor Sesay at the same time, providing a pair of dangerous short-range threats. Both players also have the speed and hands to catch balls downfield and should prove more than adequate targets for junior QB Brad Smith.

"We are certainly pleased with both of them," Pinkel said "T. Rucker's got a lot of ability and it says an awful lot of him being a redshirt freshman and winning a starting job."

Unlike Rucker, the three starting receivers for Saturday's opener against Arkansas State are not a surprise. Senior Thomson Omboga, junior Sean Coffey and sophomore Brad Ekwerekwu will be the three. Coffey replaces the departed Darius Outlaw, who led the Tigers with four touchdown grabs last season.

Despite being limited by a separated shoulder, Coffey had a strong camp. He said the offense spent a lot of time together in the offseason and is ready to step up to the next level.

"We worked real hard over the summer, just getting our timing down and things like that," Coffey said. "Guys put in a lot of extra time when they didn't have to. I think it shows now. We worked real hard to get everything together and we're gonna keep doing that day in and day out to keep getting better everyday."

There is a triumvirate of surprising receivers on the second-team offense. All three--sophomore Andrew Hoskins and freshmen Jason Ray and William Franklin--have a year or less of the Missouri system under their belt. Each player turned in a strong showing in camp, vaulting over more established players like juniors Chris Crosby and Arnold Britt.

As a true freshman, Franklin is the most intriguing of the bunch. Since he was listed on the two-deep depth chart, Franklin will not redshirt and will seeing significant playing time this season.

"We will play William Franklin," Pinkel said Monday. "We expect to get him right in the mix and get him out there playing."

Ray flashed good hands in camp and appears to be a solid possession receiver, while Hoskins has made some of the prettiest grabs and absorbed some of the biggest hits this fall. Where each player fits in is still to be determined, but all three should see playing time at some point.

"We usually go with three or four wide out sets," Hoskins said. "If one guy needs a break or whatnot, maybe I can go in there and help him out. That's about all I know."

The passing game was inconsistent in the Tigers' three scrimmages this fall, but it was never really at full strength. Since they wore no-contact jerseys, Smith and the rest of the quarterbacks were limited because they could not scramble away from pressure and improvise passes on the move. Still, Smith said he felt the offense has shown flashes of quality play this fall.

"In the scrimmages and practices we've done pretty well together," he said. "I'm excited about that, and I'm looking forward to being out there with those guys."

Pinkel wants the receiving corps to establish itself as a group of game breakers. The athleticism appears to be there; it's now up to the players to prove they can get things done.

"We just gotta make plays for our quarterback," Coffey said. "He's working hard, we're working hard. We're just waiting for it to pay off."

Check back tomorrow as our countdown continues with No. 2.

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