Despite passing for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as a starter, Blaine Gabbert has a cross to bear in 2010.
The latest standout in an impressive lineage of Missouri quarterbacks, the 6'5", 240-pound Gabbert is an NFL prototype whose professional prospects are sure to be dissected as soon as next year.
But for Gabbert, who is technically still a pubescent sophomore, the focus is on making the leap that so often defines the progression of an effective quarterback, so as to provide an encore to his concerto of 2009 that included at times playing on one good ankle.
That is what MU fans are expecting. After all, Tiger loyalists have become spoiled in recent past with excellence under (or, in the case of MU's spread offense, I should say "behind") center.
First it was Brad Smith , the gawky, string bean-like dual-threat who turned MU's wide-open offensive schemes into his own personal athletic showcase, becoming the first Division I quarterback to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 in a career.
Enter Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel , who provided the Tigers' program with a seamless transition by throwing for 3,527 yards and 28 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2006, his first season as a starter.
But it was the quantum leap made by Daniel in his second season as the starter that would ultimately land him in MU annals as the school's best quarterback yet.
In 2007, Daniel, as the commander of one of the nation's top offenses, passed for 4,306 yards, 33 touchdowns and completed more than 68 percent of his throws to lead MU to its most successful season in program history, including a Cotton Bowl victory and the school's first No. 1 ranking in nearly a half-century.
Now, the onus is on Gabbert, who embarks on his second season as the Tigers starting quarterback, much in the same manner he conducted his rookie campaign—with a faint but unmistakable hint of leadership.
"It's my responsibility to get this team to score points and win games," Gabbert told the Sporting News recently. "We didn't do enough of either [in 2009]."
In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how much more Gabbert could have done last season. After flawlessly navigating the Tigers to a perfect 4-0 start, the native of St. Louis struggled in Big 12 play, but his troubles coincided with a high-ankle sprain that severely limited his timing and mobility, even though he'll never use the injury as an excuse .
Refusing to use his lack of health as a crutch, Gabbert earned the respect of his teammates, the MU coaching staff, and even the man responsible for the ankle sprain, former Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who admitted to the Sporting News last season that Gabbert is "the real deal."
So, what now? A sample of Gabbert's ability has been established, and offseason praise is showering down from both those close to the MU program and within the national media, with some expecting the Tiger quarterback to make a dark-horse run at recognition that stretches beyond the Big 12 as he attempts to guide MU in the pursuit of a third North title in four seasons.
Gabbert was given the feeling-out process in 2009. Though stern, the test was passed with flying colors.
In 2010, the Tigers will be his team, but the extent of the Tigers' success will depend how steadily Gabbert takes the next step—the very one many feel could eventually land him one pedestal above Smith and Daniel as he claims the title of best quarterback to ever play at Missouri.