Big 12 Football Media Day Notes: Missouri

New Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel has revamped just about every aspect of the Tiger football program, but will it be enough to make Mizzou competitive again in the Big 12? This is the sixth of IT's reports from Dallas covering every league team:

One of the truly interesting things every year about the Big 12 Media Days is the impression that the league's new football coaches make on the gathered scribes. Not that a command performance in front of a couple of hundred or so media members with notepads, computers or TV cameras necessarily translates into coaching success, but the sessions can certainly provide insight into the coaching philosophy, and thus ultimately the success, of the conference's rookie coaches. The Big 12's two rookie coaches -- Missouri's Gary Pinkel and Oklahoma State's Les Miles -- appeared back-to-back on Thursday, July 26 in Dallas. Miles and his Cowboys will be the subject of our next installment of Media Day Notes, so let's lead off with the Tigers' Pinkel: the new Mizzou head man made a strong, positive first impression. Based on his comments and his demeanor, he seems to be a no-nonsense coach who will run a disciplined and fundamentally sound program. "It's hard to be a good football team in our system without discipline," Pinkel said. "Generally, kids like discipline and structure. Our players will always understand where they stand and our expectation level, and they'll have to meet our standards." Pinkel called himself a "Don James disciple." The Missouri coach played for James at Kent State and then worked as an assistant to the legendary Huskies' coach for 12 years at Washington before taking the head gig at Toledo. "I took the same program (as James' at Washington) and put it in at Toledo," Pinkel said. "Coach James had a profound influence on me." Pinkel added that there hasn't been a gradual phase-in process of his program. "We put in our program in its entirety right away," the coach said. "We've changed everything: attitude, habits, conditioning, everything. We run a disciplined, structured program."

Pinkel has a youthful look that belies his age and experience level. When the new Missouri head coach stepped to the stage to address the media, I figured Pinkel to be in his 30s. But after hearing Pinkel recite his extensive coaching experience at Washington and then at Toledo (10 years as the Rockets' head man), I grabbed the Mizzou Media Guide for an age check. Pinkel is just one year shy of 50.

As you would expect from players on a team with a new head coach who instilled a new attitude along with installing a new offense and defense, the three Tigers in Dallas -- LB Jamonte Robinson, TE Dwayne Blakley and RG Mike Hayes -- each talked about the differences between the old and the new coaching regime. Both Blakley and Hayes mentioned the team's newfound "attention to detail" while Blakley and Robinson focused on the team's Pinkel-inspired intensity and confidence. "Putting our hands on our knees is not allowed," Missouri's all-conference LB candidate said. "We stay tall and stay right and we plan to let the other team know that we're not breaking down. . . . We've gotta believe in coach Pinkel's system. With that confidence, the wins will start popping up."

The Tigers will employ a 4-4 defense this fall. Along with four down linemen, the 4-4 D uses two inside LBs -- returners Sean Doyle and Robinson -- and two "outside safeties." Robinson said the scheme change allows the linebackers to "run freely" and "run full speed to the ball with no hesitation" and "fly around." The Missouri outside safeties will play a similar role to UT's Lee Jackson, essentially as "rovers" that will have linebacker-like run-stop responsibilities near the line of scrimmage and safety-like coverage responsibilities in the secondary. Many of the 11 position changes that the Mizzou coaches made during the off-season were a result of this scheme shift. Pinkel said a key factor in the defensive moves was "to get more speed on defense." Pinkel's spin-down philosophy is similar to that of UT D-coordinator Carl Reese. Pinkel said the emphasis on speed is not limited to the defensive side of the ball. Because "speed is the name of the game," according to the Missouri head coach, the Tigers must become a faster football team than in the past. Through speed development and recruiting, Pinkel said his team is already moving in that direction. "We signed a lot of speed, a lot of players that can run." Five of those speedy signees -- Irving Nimitz DB Marcus King, Grand Prairie WR Thomas Omboga, Alief Hastings DB Justin Scott, The Woodlands DB Jason Simpson, and Lancaster WR Calvin Washington -- are from Texas. All three of the Texas trio of true freshman DBs could see the field. The Tigers have little depth in the secondary and Pinkel said Missouri will have to rely on "young kids" in the defensive backfield. Overall, the Tigers have 14 Texans on their roster, including starters C A.J. Ricker (Klein), LG Adrian Cole (Houston Nimitz), DT Cedric Harden (Humble) and CB Antoine Duncan (Denison).

Although depth and experience are a concern for Pinkel at several spots, including secondary, D-line and the kicking game (Pinkel said, "I don't think there's any excuse not to have a sound kicking game," but he said at this point he has no confidence in the Missouri kicking game), the Tigers are solid at O-line, receiver and TE. Aside from new starter Ricker at center, Missouri's OL is a veteran unit with four returning starters. WR Justin Gage totaled 709 yards on 44 receptions last fall as a sophomore and is one of the better receivers in a conference with outstanding wideout talent. TE Blakley hauled in 18 balls for 211 yards in '00, but the talk in Dallas indicated Blakley will play an even bigger role in the Mizzou O this fall. "With Gage and Blakley, we have the potential to be as good as most people in the league," Pinkel said. "We've gotta find a way to get them the ball and that's our job as coaches."

Who'll pass the ball to Gage and Blakley? Well, the Tigers have two options, last year's early season starter junior Kirk Farmer or Farmer's injury replacement and seven-game starter Darius Outlaw. Both Outlaw and Farmer are threats to run and pass. Outlaw threw for 1,391 yards and nine TDs last season and rushed for another 259 yards and five TDs while Farmer completed 50 of 102 passes for 669 yards and rushed for 138 yards on 24 carries in his limited action. "Darius improved a lot, mentally and physically, this summer," said Blakley, followed by this endorsement of Farmer's abilities by OL Hayes: "When Kirk is in the game, he elevates our offense with his passing ability, his ability to scramble and his leadership." QB controversy, anyone? Injuries, though, may again play a role at this spot after Farmer suffered a broken bone in his right hand recently that will sideline him for several weeks. Regardless of which QB is under center, the Tigers under Pinkel will run a multiple, balanced offense. "We'll lean in the direction (run or pass) that the talent is," the coach said. This year, that talent seems to be more prevalent in the passing game.

A few more comments from coach Pinkel:

"Our goal is to influence the top players in Missouri to stay in Missouri."

"From day one that I became the head coach at Missouri, (the returning players) became my guys. I want the players to take ownership in the program so I have to take ownership of them."

"Losing hurts a whole lot more than winning feels good."

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