Facing a frightening amount of uncertainty at quarterback prior to the 2002 season, the Missouri Tigers staged an audition that eventually would yield one of college football's most dynamic players.
Hand-picked by head coach Gary Pinkel, Brad Smith, a wiry, boyish unknown from Youngstown, Ohio, earned the job out of camp in August, and it wouldn't take long for the redshirt freshman to justify his coach's decision. In his first career game, Smith slithered and slashed his way through the Illinois defense, accounting for 290 total yards and a score to lead the Tigers to a 33-20 win in the first installment of the Arch Rivalry in St. Louis.
In the four years that followed, Smith, though the Tigers achieved only moderate success, blazed a path as one of the game's all-time greatest dual-threat quarterbacks. The first player in NCAA history to throw for 8,000 yards and run for 4,000, Smith was a talent all his own. But in registering unprecedented numbers, as well as giving the Missouri program a slight shove out of mediocrity, Smith gave rise to an understudy whose prowess would prove to be just as spellbinding.
The unheralded prep star from Texas that nobody wanted, Chase Daniel became enamored with Missouri during the recruiting process, but only after being scorned by his hometown Texas Longhorns, who deemed the stocky Daniel unfit to be a college quarterback. With the rejection of his favorite team sticking firmly in his craw, Daniel set out to prove his worth to the program that took a chance on him. And it didn't take long to see returns.
As a backup during the 2005 season, Daniel, then a true freshman, replaced an injured Smith and promptly led the Tigers to a series of scoring drives that would lead to an overtime victory over Iowa State. The legend was born, and with Daniel's school passing records came a level of success unmatched by any other era in Missouri football.
With Daniel's efforts and a revival of the program came an upgrade in recruiting. All of a sudden, high school quarterbacks who would have dismissed MU without hesitation as recently as five years ago wanted to be a star in the Tigers' spread offense and follow in the footsteps of Smith and Daniel.
Which brings us to the present day. The talent at quarterback is significantly more prevalent than in previous seasons, but the cautious optimism that surrounds the position is just as strong as it was prior to the 2002 and 2006 seasons.
Smith and Daniel both assaulted MU and NCAA record books (Getty)
Blaine Gabbert is supposed to be the next great Missouri quarterback, and it's easy to see why. Entering college with far more hype than either Smith or Daniel, Gabbert could have gone to any school he desired. To break him down in a most elementary form, he simply looks the part of a quarterback.
Because of the paths paved by his two predecessors, much is expected from Gabbert. The state of the MU program prior to the arrivals of Smith and Daniel left plenty to be desired, so it's safe to say expectations were not quite as high. Thanks to two consecutive 10-win seasons and back-to-back division titles, fans are calling for Gabbert to be the player who will lead the Tigers to the next level, one in which the accomplishments of a player of Daniel's acclaim will be offset by a roster filled with talented youth and depth.
One of the more, if not the most, interesting seasons in school history, 2009's measuring stick will be the play of Gabbert. But given who will be lined up behind him, an equaling riveting storyline is who in the world will assume the starting role in the case of cataclysmic disaster.
Of the five other quarterbacks on the Missouri roster, not one has taken a snap from center in a live game. Additionally, two have only been on campus for seven months, while another has excelled only as part of the scout team. Meanwhile, the remaining two aren't exactly locks to make the regular season depth chart.
It's been seven seasons since Pinkel and his staff were faced with such a large reconstruction project at quarterback. But the fruits of their labor—and the extent of their faith—bore a dream career from Smith. Then it was Daniel's turn. Let's hope the trickle down effect involves Gabbert.
Blaine Gabbert (6'5", 240 lbs., So.)
What else can you say about Gabbert that hasn't already been well-documented? The heralded sophomore quarterback from St. Louis has heard it all, from being called the next big thing, to predictions foretelling he won't be nearly as successful as his two history-making predecessors, to the grumblings of critics who insist he's destined to fall somewhere in middle.
But the reality of it all is that no one knows what will become of Gabbert, and there's really no sense in guessing.
On paper, we all know what were getting from Gabbert: pinpoint accuracy, scary velocity, nimble feet, heady presence, quietly effective leadership, and quite possibly the most all-around talented player ever to wear the Tiger uniform.
In short, Gabbert is an NFL-caliber quarterback who is using college as an amateur stop-off on the road to bigger and better things.
Big things are expected of Blaine Gabbert in '09 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
As the successor to Daniel, Gabbert showed in the spring he's capable of validating the hype. And the validation process carried over into preseason camp.
In three scrimmages, Gabbert completed 74 percent of his passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns and showed unmistakable command of the first-team offense, particularly under the glare of the two-minute drill.
But as fun as it may be to hypothesize about Gabbert's potential success, we all know that truth comes in numbers. And the only problem with that is, Gabbert has only completed five passes for 43 yards in his collegiate career, so gushing over all the reasons why he will excel don't carry much weight until he actually does.
Or, dare I say, if he ever does. We begin to find out on Sept. 5 in MU's season opener against Illinois.
If there's one bit of concrete fact in all of this, it's that Gabbert is the future of this Missouri program; he has been ever since he shockingly de-committed from Nebraska midway through his senior year of high school. And after spending a season getting his feet wet, his time has come.
The Missouri team and program belong to him now. Teammates, regardless of class, look up to him. With each throw, read, pocket collapse, and run, Gabbert becomes more confident. There's no one looking over his shoulder.
Adhering to his preseason policy of letting competition determine starting jobs, Pinkel hasn't wasted his time rolling out a red carpet for his new quarterback, nor has he flinched when asked if he'd hesitate to make a change should Gabbert struggle.
Despite Pinkel's philosophy, it's hard to fathom Gabbert's leash being very short. Because he's the best they have. We've all known that to be the case since the end of last season. Now it's time for him to start playing like it.
Jimmy Costello (6'3", 225 lbs., So.)
By virtue of Missouri's troubling youth at quarterback, Costello will be the backup to Gabbert this season, even though he's yet to throw a single pass. A former walk-on from Liberty, Mo., Costello thrived on the offensive scout team for much of the past two seasons, often drawing accolades for his preparation and overall improvement.
Nearly as big as Gabbert, Costello may not be as naturally gifted, but he has good size and above-average arm strength to go along with his knowledge of Missouri's offensive scheme.
(On a side note, Costello reportedly won a contest among MU quarterbacks last season by throwing a ball out of Memorial Stadium from the South end zone goalpost, which is, needless to say, impressive.)
A third-year veteran of the program, Costello should be well-versed in how things are done under Pinkel, but his non-existent game experience means fans shutter at the thought of him replacing Gabbert in the case of injury.
And as Gabbert was asserting himself as the clear-cut starter for 2009, Costello was busy during the spring locking down the No. 2 job. He finished the pre-summer session with a noteworthy performance in the Black and Gold Game, completing 10 of 21 passes for 70 yards, and scoring the offense's lone touchdown of the day on a one-yard run.
As summer turned to spring, and a pair of true freshmen (Ashton Glaser and Blaine Dalton) picked up more of the offense, Costello encountered stiffer competition. While the final week of preseason camp transpired, Dalton made a late push for the backup job, leaving Costello to scratch and crawl for a job that once appeared to be his to lose.
Alas, although Costello performed well enough to presumably hold off his fellow contender, the question of who would be the backup quarterback in 2009 was answered when Dalton was dismissed from the program last weekend following an arrest for DWI.
Anybody with a brain would tell you that an injury to Gabbert would be catastrophic to the Tigers' season. But if such an event did occur, the coaching staff has commented on Costello's development enough to perhaps quell some of the anxiety. Or maybe not. Missouri fans hope they never have to find out.
Ashton Glaser (6'2", 210 lbs., Fr.)
One of the top dual-threat quarterback prospects from the state of Arkansas, Glaser is the prototypical athlete for Missouri's spread offense. He won't wow anyone with his arm strength, but Glaser makes up for his lack of velocity with deft touch on intermediate routes, quick feet, and impressive elusiveness in open space.
Over his final two years at Springdale High School, Glaser threw for over 5,500 yards, rushed for another 1,100, and accounted for 84 combined touchdowns in earning Red Zone Player of the Year honors in 2007 and directing the state's No. 1 offense in his senior season of 2008.
An all-state performer in soccer as well, Glaser enrolled at Mizzou a semester early, following the recent trend of incoming freshmen arriving on campuses in January, well before the beginning of spring workouts.
Glaser looked the part of a newbie in April, as confusion and uncertainty often led to hastily-delivered balls and indecision. Technically listed as the fourth-string quarterback on the depth chart heading into preseason camp, Glaser was once considered interchangeable with fellow freshman—and early enrollee—Dalton, who posted similar numbers to Glaser during the Black and Gold Game.
Though he was noticeably outperformed by Dalton in camp, Glaser, like Costello, benefits from Dalton's arrest, and will enter the season as the No. 3 quarterback. Glaser's role in 2009 will be limited to mop-up duty, but the promising recruit is just one of the many talented signal-callers who will reside in Columbia over the next handful of years.
Blaine Dalton (6'0", 195 lbs., Fr.)
Cut from the same cloth as Chase Daniel, Dalton was recruited out of Blue Springs South High School as a savvy playmaker who made up for his physical limitations with a long list of intangibles and an uncanny knack for winning.
Generously listed at six feet tall, Dalton used both his feet and his arm to lead the Jaguars to an appearance in the Class 6A title game last season as a senior, combining for nearly 3,500 yards and 38 total touchdowns through the air and on the ground. For his efforts, Dalton received the prestigious Simone Award, which is given annually to the top high school player in the Kansas City area, to put a fitting cap on a spectacular prep career.
Blaine Dalton (right) was dismissed from the MU program (Col. Tribune)
Coveted by such schools as Florida, Florida State, and Tulsa, Dalton wasted no time making a decision as soon as the recruiting hype surrounding him began to build.
Barely into his junior season, Dalton, rated by some recruiting services as a top-20 quarterback prospect in the nation, pledged his verbal commitment to Missouri after attending the Tigers' 41-6 romping of Nebraska in October of 2007.
Less than two years later, Dalton entered Missouri's preseason camp as the No. 3 quarterback, and was considered a serious candidate for the backup role with less than one week to go before the season opener.
Sadly, though, Dalton was dismissed from the program last weekend by head coach Gary Pinkel for his second arrest in less than four months. On the morning of Aug. 28, Dalton, 18, was arrested by campus police on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He was also cited for failure to drive within a single lane and operating a vehicle on a suspended license.
Rumored to have had a checkered past in high school, Dalton saw his career as a Tiger get off to a rocky start. Following spring workouts, Dalton was arrested by Columbia police in early May, after a search of his vehicle during a routine traffic stop turned up a vial of the prescription painkiller Hydrocodone.
Shortly thereafter, reports confirmed that the pills belonged to a former prep teammate, and Dalton averted a felony conviction, although the incident earned him a suspension from Gary Pinkel.
Lead photo courtesy of Columbia Daily Tribune