Mizzou football fans are experts at keeping themselves from becoming overly optimistic. And who could blame them given the Tiger's track record over the past twenty years.
However, it is interesting to think where this program was exactly one year ago and how it has progressed since then. Here are a few objective comparisons that seem to point to improvement for Mizzou in 2002-03.
- QB Situation: Last year, we had Farmer with a broken hand after getting into a late-night Greek Town fight and Darius Outlaw not knowing what to do in the new offense. This year, we have a great QB competition between Farmer and Smith and quality QBs coming up through the depth.
- Defensive Line: Last year we had converted RB Dan Davis STARTING at defensive end, and converted LB Antwaun Bynum at the other DE. A new JC transfer named Keith Wright was finding his way, and a very skinny Nick Tarpoff and an uninspired Ced Harden. This year, we have a stronger Bynum, a second-team all big 12 DT in Wright, CJ Moseley and man-mountain Attayah Ellison. We also add brutish Bell to the mix along with other quality defensive lineman in the depth.
- Defensive Backfield: Pinkel arrived on campus with ONE true healthy starting defensive back on the roster. I will spare everybody the rundown of names and positions that were duct taped together to form last year's DBs. This year, we have two confident SENIOR cornerbacks, a great young group of DBs who are playing tight coverage for the first time in years, and more quality depth in the pipe.
- Wide Receivers: Last year we had Justin Gage and.... well, not much else. At least nobody that had any experience playing at this level. And even if we did, who was going to get the ball to them? This year, the question is is there enough balls to go around to Gage, James, Coffey Crosby, Omboga, Mitchell, and DARIUS OUTLAW? Outlaw has suddenly emerged as a depth buster at this position.
- Offensive Line: True, there were three senior offensive linemen on last year's starting unit. However, two of the three guys had significant conditioning issues and that's being very kind. While the 2002 unit won't have many games playing together under their collective belt, their belt is much tighter this year and everybody moves better and is quicker. Less will be more in 2002 for MU's offensive line.
- Running Back: Last year's unit had a heavier Zach Abron and Zain Gilmore sharing time early on. Abron blossomed into a threat to gain 100+ yards per game virtually every week. This year, Abron is leaner and still meaner. He's down to 225 lbs. and everybody is raving about how quick he looks and how hard he's running. Roberson, Giffen and Leon are in the depth, but the wild card in the mix is speed demon Mario Whitney. The true freshman is the fastest thing to line up in MU's backfield since the Devine era and is a legitimate threat to break long runs any time he touches the ball in space.
- Linebackers: Sean Doyle had his own legal problems at this time last year and Jamonte Robinson was his running mate inside. This year, Doyle is in the best shape of his life and James Kinney is the hot young commodity at LB. Like many other position areas, there are more young studs waiting in the wings here like Ming, Mau, Smith, Gooden, etc.
- Special Teams: Brad Hammerich was the shining star of this unit. The punting game was usually disasterous, and at best, average. This year, Brock Harvey has switched to a 2-step delivery and he is getting more hang time and consistency. Freshman Alex Petterson is gaining confidence and appears to have a very long, powerful leg at PK. Did we also mention that that Whitney kid might run back a few punts or kick offs as well?
Does all of this improvement equate to a six- or seven-win season? It's just too early to tell at this point, because we haven't seen this edition of Tigers play in any real games yet. Also, we have to assume that the competition has changed their personnel and mix as well.
One thing that does appear to be certain in 2002-03...the Missouri Tigers will be much more competitive and exciting than they were a year ago.