SCOUTING REPORT Missouri in the Gary Pinkel era has its name on elite quarterback play, but in 2011 it's what the team might do to opposing passers that could put it in the Big 12 title hunt. One year after leading the conference in sacks (38) and scoring defense (16.1 points per game), the Tigers bring back their best group of pass rushers yet, even after defensive end Aldon Smith's early departure to the NFL."We're very fortunate to still have depth and competition at defensive end," Pinkel says. The options begin with junior Brad Madison, a converted offensive lineman with a nonstop motor, who earned second-team All--Big 12 honors as a backup in 2010. Fellow all-leaguer Jacquies Smith (no relation to Aldon) anchors the other end, while Michael Sam, a second-team Freshman All-America, and redshirt freshman Kony Ealy, a star in spring practice, fill out a depth chart that must read like a Stephen King novel to Big 12 quarterbacks.As for Missouri's own quarterback, sophomore James Franklin all but clinched the starting job when Tyler Gabbert, younger brother of departed starter Blaine, announced in May that he was transferring from the program. Pinkel's Tigers have transitioned well to new QBs: Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert were stars as first-year starters, and Franklin is on track to match them. In mop-up duty as a true freshman last season, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 106 yards. And at 6-2, 225 pounds he can threaten with his legs: He rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries, including a push-the-pile three-yard touchdown run to seal an upset over then No. 1 Oklahoma last October."James is a faster, quicker athlete than Blaine and Chase," says Pinkel. "He's got a good arm, too. He just needs to continue to get better reading defenses. My bigger concern is that the people around James play at the level they need to play at."It's only a minor worry, though, because the receiving corps features T.J. Moe (92 catches for 1,045 yards in 2010), Michael Egnew (90 for 762) and Jerrell Jackson (50 for 656), while all-conference tackles Dan Hoch and Elvis Fisher should keep Franklin off the grass.With this level of emphasis on the passer on both sides of the ball, Missouri should be equipped to challenge the conference's best. THE BIG IF Will Franklin have the vision and passing skills to take advantage of Missouri's many offensive weapons? TELLING NUMBER 40 -- Wins for Missouri over the past four seasons, three fewer than Oklahoma and as many as Texas among Big 12 teams.
KEY RETURNEES Elvis Fisher, LT, Sr. -- The agile Fisher has been a rock on the blind side for Mizzou's QBs, slowing down his targets even without delivering the biggest hits. The All-Big 12 honorable mention has made 40 consecutive starts and should be 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery.
Zavair Gooden, LB, Jr. -- With the burst to get into the backfield (7½ tackles for loss, three sacks in 2010) and the athleticism to make plays in coverage (two picks, five turnovers), he should be among the Big 12's leading tacklers in 2011.
T.J. Moe, WR, Jr. -- The sure-handed slot receiver's 92 catches as a first-year starter led the team. A Big 12 All-Academic first-teamer last year (4.0 GPA), he should provide a security blanket for new quarterback James Franklin.
Dan Hoch, RT, Sr. -- Four years after coach Gary Pinkel sneaked the 6-7, 320-pound blue-chipper out of Iowa (and a verbal commitment to Nebraska), Hoch returns as one of the nation's elite linemen. The road-grating tackle's run blocking is especially important to the offense.
Michael Egnew, TE, Jr. -- The former track star emerged as one of the nation's top tight ends last season, hauling in 90 passes for 762 yards. He was a consensus first-team All-America.
BREAKOUT PLAYER Kony Ealy, DE, Fr. -- Upperclassmen Brad Madison and Jacquies Smith will be the starters, but Ealy could be the best of the Tigers' outstanding defensive end rotation. At 6-5 and 250 pounds he's the most physically gifted (an "Aldon Smith-type athlete," according to Pinkel) and was unblockable this spring. TOP RECRUIT Corbin Berkstresser, QB, Fr. -- A pocket passer with prototypical size (6-3, 220 pounds), Berkstresser ran a spread offense at Lee's Summit (Mo.) High and threw for 3,383 yards and 36 touchdowns as a senior. If James Franklin is slow to develop as a passer, Berkstresser could push him for the starting job next spring.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.
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