It's early spring in Columbia, and the newly retooled Missouri offense has slothed threw a lackluster performance in the annual Black and Gold Game.
Final score: Defense 68, Offense 40.
Forty points may seem like a fine day's work, but not even an offensively biased scoring system could hide the dysfunction. When the running game wasn't sputtering in the backfield under a wave of onrushing defenders, a who's who committee of fresh-faced quarterbacks was either throwing wounded ducks or nervously tap-dancing around the pocket in face of searing pressure.
When the day was through, the Offense had scored once—on a one-yard touchdown run.
A performance hardly resembling an attack that seemed to cruise almost on auto-pilot while doing pretty much whatever it wanted to opposing defenses for much of the last two seasons.
But such are the times of the Missouri Tigers, a program undoubtedly standing smack dab in the middle of a crossroads.
The familiar faces that bred so much comfort in the huddle during the two most successful seasons in MU football history are gone, each having left his own indelible mark on the program that won't ever be forgotten. Each having performed his craft so effortlessly that we may have taken their excellence for granted.
Before, the question was whether the Missouri offense had the audacity to score on every single possession. In 2009, the more poignant discussion may be how many possessions it will take fans to learn the new names, numbers, and faces.
And there are plenty to go around. Of the 52 players who are currently listed on Missouri's offensive depth chart entering August's preseason practices, 37—or just over 70 percent—are either sophomores or redshirt freshmen. And that's not accounting for a large percentage of the 2009 recruiting class that is set to arrive on campus within the next week or so.
With that much youth, how could spring ball be anything else other than a series of stomach-churning auditions and forgivable errors?
Missouri returns five starters from an offense that ranked eighth or better in six different statistical categories nationally a season ago, including fourth in total yards (6,778), passing yards (4,625), passing yards per game (330.4), points (591), and points per game (42.2).
Moreover, of the six players who are likely to step into leading roles this season, only one (sophomore tight end Andrew Jones) has started a game.
On the surface, things appear scary. But inexperience, however harmful it may prove to be early on in 2009, may be this unit's only flaw.
In his staff's quest to make the Tigers one of those unique programs that is able to avoid lengthy reconstruction projects, head coach Gary Pinkel has stockpiled talent that has Missouri on the verge of entering "reloading" status.
Jones and fellow tight end Michael Egnew appear ready to follow the legacy left by arguably the most successful tight end in college football history, Chase Coffman. All the while, a host of athletic and naturally gifted wide receivers is certainly capable of filling at least a portion of the void created by All-American Jeremy Maclin.
Chase Daniel rarely left Gabbert's side during the spring
- 2009 a season for reloading
- What to expect from the defense in 2009
- Defensive end preview l Defensive tackles
- Linebackers preview l Secondary
But the ability to move seamlessly from one great generation to the next begins at the quarterback position, where sophomore Blaine Gabbert will begin his succession of Chase Daniel, the program's most prolific passer and thoroughly beloved figure.
On paper, Gabbert is the prince to Daniel's pauper. Equipped with a bionic shoulder, the former five-star recruit from St. Louis can make throws with velocity that the accuracy-driven Daniel could only daydream about. Standing nearly 6-foot-6, Gabbert has size that causes NFL scouts to salivate and would seemingly allow him to operate with just as much efficiency under center as in the shotgun, whereas Daniel's diminutive stature handicapped him into receiving the snap seven yards deep on every down.
But the one thing Gabbert will have to learn that came so blissfully inane to Daniel is leadership. When he wasn't playing commander-in-chief of Missouri's offense last season, Daniel was quizzing his understudy on the playbook and treating Gabbert like a sponge, hoping that his successor would soak up as much as possible. Daniel was the sort of player who was able to make those around him better.
There's no doubt that Gabbert will be able to do so with his ability alone, but the coaching staff is hoping that the intangible part eventually kicks in as well. But until those intangibles can emerge through game experience, Gabbert's steady improvement over time is the order of the day.
“He’s making tremendous strides,” offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach David Yost said of Gabbert, who completed nine of 13 passes for 93 yards during the Black and Gold Game to earn Most Improved Quarterback honors during the spring. “He’s got a lot of ability, and you’re starting to see it on a consistent basis. We expect great things out of him because of what he’s able to do.”
If nothing else, this early in his career, Gabbert is the embodiment of those hoping to fulfill the expectations set forth by Daniel and his offensive cohorts: talented but unproven. But even amidst some of those early-spring wobbly passes and pre-snap misreads, a glimmer of Gabbert's natural talent and ever-expanding knowledge of the Tigers' intricate spread offense will shine through, prompting players from both sides of the ball to acknowledge him as the leader of the team prior to preseason camp.
“Everybody knows he’s got the strong arm," junior tailback Derrick Washington told the Columbia Daily Tribune earlier this month. "But he’s going to come out here and lead this team this year. That’s what we need. We need him to step up as a leader, and that’s what he’s doing right now."
The confidence the team has in its new quarterback is no less evident in preseason All-Big 12 senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, an outspoken guy who enjoys exercising his vocal chords and playing head games with the opposition.
Blaine Gabbert is supremely talented, but young (Bill Carter)
“He doesn’t give guys many opportunities for interceptions,” Weatherspoon said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned, because I try to trick him here and there and give him different coverages. But he’s pretty savvy, man. He’s a lot like Chase. And he learns quick. We’re excited about him.”
Though the physical similarities between the two are nearly non-existent, the high regard in which teammates held Daniel is beginning to transfer to Gabbert, which is essential if Gabbert is to orchestrate a winning campaign in 2009 en route to becoming the next great MU quarterback.
On Aug. 6, players and coaches will commence for the first of many preseason workouts, and the team will belong to Gabbert, only with uncertainty casting an aura around his untested offensive unit. From there, less than 30 days will separate the Tigers from their Sept. 5 season opener against Illinois.
With that first snap, the Blaine Gabbert era will have officially begun, and with it the efforts of an offense hoping to ride its young leader to new levels of success.
Spring has come and gone. The surreal image of a street-clothed Daniel embracing Gabbert in a private moment of tutelage spoke volumes for Tiger fans. The torch has been passed, but it is yet to be seen whether that will mean a break in the most exciting period in Missouri football history.
In the days leading up to preseason workouts, I will preview the 2009 Missouri Tigers with comprehensive breakdowns of every offensive position, as well as touch on what to expect from the players who will headline one of the more interesting seasons in MU football history.
Analysis of the MU offense will take place as follows:
July 29: Offensive Line
July 31: Tight Ends/Receivers
Aug. 3: Running Backs
Aug. 5: Quarterbacks
Each part of my comprehensive preview of the 2009 Missouri Tigers can be found at Examiner.com.
Photo Credit: Bill Carter/Nick King-Columbia Daily Tribune