Mizzou Seniors: A Class of their Own
And after four years here – five for those who took a redshirt season – everything they believed possible seems to be coming to fruition as Missouri's 20-man senior class prepares for its final game at Faurot Field Saturday against Texas A&M.
"They just kind of believed in us and believed in the direction where we were going to try to build this program. That's what it was all about. And they've accomplished a lot. We'll wait and see when the season's over, but I think … University of Missouri football's a lot better since these kids came to Missouri and helped build and developed this program," said MU coach Gary Pinkel, whose third recruiting class at Mizzou has proved to be his best.
"I'm indebted to them, because they certainly had other choices, and they chose to come here. They've just been leaders, they've been soldiers of our program and when it's all said and done we'll be able to list several things they've done to help rebuild this program," Pinkel said.
Mizzou's senior class has won 28 games so far, good for 10th place among all classes that have come through MU. Should the Tigers win out, including victories in the Big 12 championship game and a bowl game, they'd be tired for the most wins of any group ever to play here. Just the fourth Missouri team to win eight regular-season games in a season, this year's Tigers would break the school-record in that category by beating A&M, Kansas State and Kansas.
When they arrived in Columbia, though, such accomplishments would have seemed laughable.
"They weren't coming to, at the time, a big-time program like some of the other offers they had. But they wanted to change things. They wanted to be a part of a program that they built," said junior defensive end Stryker Sulak.
"That's why I want to send them out. They helped build what we are right now."
But you'll have to excuse them if they're not getting all sappy about everything yet.
"They're on a mission," Pinkel said.
Not every senior has enjoyed stardom here. But to a man, the coaches and players said this week it would be unwise to overlook the leadership and under-the-radar contributions of role players like safety Travis Cardoza, a practice warrior, and cornerback Paul Simpson, who has emerged into a contributing role in his final year.
"It's all leadership. From the seniors on the scout team to the seniors running the team. It's all leadership and it's all love going around," junior lineman Ziggy Hood said.
Several seniors will have chances to play for pay next year; tight end Martin Rucker is a likely third or fourth-round pick, wide receiver Will Franklin has been projected into the middle rounds, and there of several more who'll get long looks from scouts --- notably, center Adam Spieker, running back Tony Temple, cornerback Darnell Terrell, safety Pig Brown and defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams.
Williams has had perhaps the most interest journey of all. He arrived at Mizzou a 235-pound linebacker but grew into a defensive end's body, and continued to get bigger and bigger until the staff asked him to move to defensive tackle.
"He's done a good job in all aspects. He's been a great leader the whole time he's been here. We've asked him to do a lot in terms of changing positions, and he's never complained. He's always been willing to help the team. He's the consummate team guy … If you asked him to go play quarterback, I'm sure he'd do it, and he'd be smiling," said defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Williams has become a playmaker on the line and an unquestioned leader of the team.
"He taught me that you don't have to be old to lead," sophomore Sean Weatherspoon said of Williams "You would kind of think that Zo was a senior just because of how he led guys and pumped guys up."
Explained Williams, "It's not hard with this group of guys. Everybody's so focused, everybody wants more, everybody knows we can be better. So it's not hard to be a leader right now."
Williams also recalled his decision to attend Missouri.
"[Pinkel] sat down on my couch and was like, ‘I've got a dream. If you've got a dream, let's have our dreams together and let's go ahead and make it happen.' We just came here on belief.
"I remember my first game in St. Louis, and now it's my last game. It's been a long time. I've been here a long time, seen a lot of good things [and] a lot of bad things. The good thing is, we're on the right track right now. Just gotta keep rolling."
And then there is Rucker, one of the more self-assured, mature college football players you'll come across. Perhaps the best tight end in college football, he's also played an enormous role in the growth of the program by way of his leadership. He's vocal, brash and a friend to everyone on the team, it seems.
"Those guys are tremendous leaders. They welcomed in the freshmen with open arms and if we ever need anything or need to know anything, we can just go to them," freshman running back Derrick Washington said.
"It's just like a big family."
Junior quarterback Chase Daniel bonded early on with the players a year ahead of him, so Saturday's game hold special meaning for him.
"There is something special. They set the groundwork for this foundation here that we've been going on. And it's going to be huge for me personally to send them out in a good way on Saturday with a win, because they've done so much for my help and my stature here at the University of Missouri to help me," Daniel said.
Pinkel said this team has far been less concerned with rankings than previous teams lacking the national profile of the 2007 Tigers, instead focusing on the task at hand. It's part of what makes them a championship contender, and a mindset that trickles down from Daniel and the seniors.
"Now in '03, that's all they talked about. They talked about it before it started, after it started, when they were taking their showers, in class," Pinkel said, prompting some chuckles.
"They've really accepted the challenge. They're the ones that really got the ball rolling on this thing. "
But don't be surprised if the stoic coach is twitching a bit as the seniors are announced.
"I'm just so close to all these kids, so Saturday, their last introduction is going to be tough," he said. "That's going to be something that's going to be pretty tough on me."
Still, once the opening kickoff sails into the air, all sentimentality will be forgotten. Unlike some of its predecessors, this team is thinking on too large a scale to focus much energy on peripheral things like senior day.
"This is their last home game," Daniel said, "but we've got a lot more football after this."
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