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spoon

Spoon-fed

Now that Missouri football has earned national respect, players are hungry for seconds. And thirds.


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Sean Weatherspoon is poised to break the all time tackle record at Mizzou. Click to see a behind the scenes look at the making of "Spoon-Fed"

For every true Mizzou fan, skies above have definitely been blue. The Tigers set a school record with 22 wins during the past two seasons after averaging fewer than six wins per season the previous decade. Missouri's overtime victory against Northwestern University on Dec. 29, 2008, in the Alamo Bowl was its third bowl win in four years. Missouri is now a perennial part of the national football conversation, bringing a swagger hitherto unfamiliar to a generation of MU fans.

Unfortunately, the Alamo Bowl also marked the end of an era for six players on offense and seven on defense. Gone are star quarterback Chase Daniel and his two favorite targets, wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman. Departing from the defense are lineman Evander “Ziggy” Hood, safety William Moore and defensive end Stryker Sulak.

More than 40 players have moved on from Missouri in the last two years, but in his ninth season, head Coach Gary Pinkel is confident his program has achieved the recruiting momentum it needs.

“There was a time when nobody knew who Ziggy Hood was and no one had heard of Stryker Sulak,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of kids now where it’s kind of like it was three or four years ago.”

So it’s fitting that senior linebacker Sean “Spoon” Weatherspoon leads Mizzou into a new era with an ebullient personality and youthful energy. If “Spoon” and his teammates can inspire a defensive revival at Missouri, fans will continue to eat it up.

Table for 12

No conference is as defined by its quarterbacks as the Big 12, and 2009 will again showcase the nation’s best. Baylor, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas all return top-flight quarterbacks with Heisman Trophy potential.


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From left, Jaron Baston, Sean Weatherspoon, Kurtis Gregory and Derrick Washington.

For Missouri, Blaine Gabbert could be the latest in what has become a legacy behind center. The 6-foot-5, blue-chip recruit from Ballwin, Mo., has confidence and arm strength, but limited experience tempers expectations for the sophomore in 2009.

The Black and Gold Game on April 18 offered glimpses of Gabbert’s athleticism and skill, but the defense was the dominant squad that day, stuffing the offense 68-40.

“Just like when Daniel was starting out, you have to rely more on other guys when you have a young quarterback,” says David Yost, new offensive coordinator.

Yost represents one of the two most significant promotions on the Missouri coaching staff, as former offensive coordinator Dave Christensen is now the head coach at the University of Wyoming, and former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus coaches linebackers for the Cleveland Browns.

Previously the quarterbacks coach, Yost was instrumental in developing record breakers Daniel and Brad Smith. New defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has been the man behind Mizzou’s talented corps of linebackers for the last eight years. Yost and Steckel have a combined 25 years of experience with Pinkel, a particular point of pride for the head coach.

“When you hire from within, you hire people who know how you do things,” Pinkel says, comparing the process to his experience as an assistant under University of Washington coaching legend Don James. “This transition has been very minimal for everyone, but most importantly for the players.”

Chewing up yards

Junior tailback Derrick Washington was the Big 12’s third-leading rusher in 2008 with 1,078 yards. Along with sophomore tailback De’Vion Moore, who averaged almost six yards per carry last season, the running backs will likely be among those “other guys” Yost mentions. In fact, with a new quarterback and fresh faces on every unit, fans are wondering how the Tigers’ high-flying aerial attack will fare. But don’t expect Mizzou to transform from the spread offense into the I formation.

“When you lose that many players in two years, the last thing you want to do is come in and change the offense around,” Pinkel says. “You want to go back to basics. There are adjustments we’re going to make, but we’re going to do it within our system.”

The offensive line continues to get bigger and stronger, anchored by returning starters junior Tim Barnes, senior Kurtis Gregory and sophomore Elvis Fisher. At 6-foot-7, 315 pounds, sophomore tackle Dan Hoch won playing time as a true freshman in 2008, while sophomore Austin Wuebbels steps in at left guard.

Senior wideouts Jared Perry and Danario Alexander will try to replace the 2,093 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns posted by Maclin and Tommy Saunders, and speedy sophomores Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson also have earned increased expectations. At tight end, reliable sophomore Andrew Jones follows in the footsteps of Coffman and 2007 graduate Martin Rucker.

On special teams, Mizzou will again feel Maclin’s absence as the coaching staff tries to field a new dynamic kick returner. But the biggest question mark will be replacing the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, Jeff Wolfert. The spring leader is senior Tanner Mills, with punting duties going to returning senior starter Jake Harry.
“I’m not sure you can ever replace a Jeff Wolfert,” Pinkel says.

The Tigers finished last in the league in pass defense in 2008, an area they’ll need to improve to stay competitive in 2009. Working to fluster opposing signal callers, Mizzou’s secondary features returning junior starter Carl Gettis at cornerback and a group of athletic young players such as junior cornerback Kevin Rutland and sophomore safety Kenji Jackson.

Senior noseguard Jaron Baston, a vocal leader on defense, knows they’ll have a tough task slowing down the Big 12’s offenses. “Everybody says this team has a target on its chest, but on defense, we feel like we’re the underdog every game,” Baston says.

And then there’s Weatherspoon, who Pinkel calls “the best linebacker in the country, without question.” An early favorite for first-team All-America honors, he enters the season with 302 career tackles, putting him within striking distance of James Kinney’s Mizzou record of 434 from 2001–04.

Despite a solid spring and an impressive Black and Gold Game, Weatherspoon stops short of saying the team will be defined by its defense. “I don’t think it’s safe to say that we’re a dominant defense at the moment. I think we’ve definitely made some strides and come far,” he says. “But as far as competitive nature, you can count on these guys every day to compete.”

Sunday buffet

Flash back to April 25. Hood stands on stage beaming, the second of six Tigers selected in the 2009 NFL Draft in New York. Together with Pittsburgh Steelers’ Coach Mike Tomlin, the new colleagues hold aloft Hood’s replica No. 1 jersey, signifying the top pick by the Super Bowl champions.

“Hey, check that out,” says Pinkel, sliding a photo of the scene across his desk. The coach is notably nonchalant about former players transitioning from Saturdays to Sundays. “That’s kind of cool, huh?”

For the Missouri Tigers, success in the draft does not represent the mountaintop. Too many goals remain — a Bowl Championship Series Bowl game selection, a Big 12 championship and a national championship.

But draft day was a fitting cherry on top for a senior class that accrued 37 victories, played in four consecutive bowl games and achieved the school’s first No. 1 ranking in 47 years. Missouri football has entrenched itself in the national consciousness and now regularly attracts NFL-caliber recruits. “We play at the highest level here,” Pinkel says. “Those [draft] numbers should increase. I think that’s normal.”

The 2009 squad can expect growing pains as it develops young talent in one of the most competitive leagues in the country, but the Tigers will bring their appetite. “With success comes expectations,” Yost says. “Coach Pinkel is always saying, ‘You never arrive.’ Because once you think you’re there, guess what? Somebody just went by you.”

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