Gary Pinkel, Missouri working to earn respect in new league
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When co-offensive line coach Josh Henson came to Missouri from LSU in 2009, he figured he would be the one asking all the questions on a staff renowned throughout college football for its continuity. But since the Tigers announced their move from the Big 12 to the SEC, Henson, who served as LSU's recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach, has become the staff sage on matters SEC. Still, he isn't sure how much help he can offer.
"I had probably already told them all the stories," Henson said with a laugh after a practice last month.
No matter. Head coach Gary Pinkel and his staff will take all the advice they can get as they enter the league that has produced the past six national champions. Assistants will get new recruiting areas, and players and coaches will have to quickly brush up on a new set of foes.
When spring practice ends, Pinkel will have assistants thoroughly break down each opponent on a schedule that has only two holdovers (Arizona State and fellow SEC newcomer Texas A&M) from last season. Coaches study opponents every offseason, but since almost everyone on the schedule is new, Pinkel wants a more detailed dossier on each team. He knew what Kansas and Kansas State would do year-to-year, but Georgia and South Carolina are relative mysteries.
At the moment, Pinkel sees no need for radical schematic changes despite the shift from a pass-happy, defense-light league to a conference that prizes stout defense above all else. "You've got to do what you do," Pinkel said.
That's not a bad idea. Thanks to a confluence of divisional gerrymandering, schedule-making and quality recruiting/coaching on the part of Pinkel and his staff, Missouri should enter the SEC in a far better position than fellow Big 12 refugee Texas A&M. Longitude be damned, Missouri wound up in the SEC East because that proved the tidiest solution to adding two schools on the league's western edge. While the Aggies look up at Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and probably Auburn, Missouri can look almost across at Georgia and South Carolina.
The Tigers got stuck with an Oct. 13 visit from Alabama, but otherwise the schedule plays out favorably. Georgia, the best East team on paper, will make the first of its two trips to a town named Columbia on Sept. 8. Faurot Field will almost certainly be rocking for the first moments of Missouri's new life in the SEC, and it appears the Bulldogs will have both starting cornerbacks and a starting safety suspended for the game.
If Missouri quarterback James Franklin is healthy -- he suffered a torn labrum at practice on March 13 and had surgery, but Pinkel expects him back for the season -- the Tigers might have the firepower to upset the Bulldogs. Remember, Missouri has averaged 9.6 wins per season since 2007, and the Tigers have recruited accordingly. In February, they nabbed receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation's top-ranked prospect. With Franklin (2,865 passing yards, 21 passing TDs, 981 rushing yards, 15 rushing TDs in 2011) throwing to T.J. Moe (54 catches, 649 yards in 2011) and Green-Beckham (think a faster, more athletic Alshon Jeffery, SEC fans), Missouri's spread offense could be one of the more productive in the league as long as coordinator David Yost can find someone to replace the production of tailback Henry Josey, who probably will need another year to recover from a catastrophic knee injury.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have several defensive players who might look at home on elite SEC rosters. Brad Madison and Kony Ealy appear next in the line of uppercrust defensive ends that includes Ziggy Hood, Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a former five-star recruit who spent two years at a California junior college, had eight tackles for loss as a junior and appears ready to break out in his second season. At linebacker, Zaviar Gooden weighs 230 pounds and runs like a cornerback. "He's quick. He can make a mistake and make up for it," fellow linebacker Will Ebner said of Gooden. "That's something most people don't have. That's something I don't have."
What the Tigers don't have is a roster packed with such athletes at every position and even in some backup roles. Georgia and South Carolina do, especially on the defensive line. That, Henson said, is the critical difference between the Big 12 and the SEC. "You'll see as good top-end players in the Big 12," Henson said. "The biggest difference [in the SEC] is probably the week-to-week depth."
Unlike many of his fellow head coaches, who were dragged along through conference realignment with no say in the move, Pinkel had a chance to voice his opinion before the Tigers elected to leave the Big 12. Though Pinkel said the ultimate decision was made by the chancellor, president and Board of Curators, Pinkel endorsed the move to his bosses. But not because he thought it was necessarily the best move for Gary Pinkel or for Missouri's short-term prospects. "It was what I thought was best for the University of Missouri," Pinkel said. "It wasn't what I thought was best. The best thing for me was we stay in the Big 12. But obviously, there is a reason why four teams left. There were severe problems."
Pinkel's endorsement carried only one condition. "As long as you invest," he said. "That's the No. 1 thing. If you're not going to invest, if we're just going to go in there and do the best we can, I don't want to be a part of it." He'll get his wish. In the next few months, the school will announce future facilities improvements.
Next month, Henson and running backs coach Brian Jones will head to Florida in an attempt to introduce a new crop of recruits to Missouri football. Safeties coach Alex Grinch will do the same in the Atlanta area, where prospects who drive along I-85 in Gwinnett County already pass a Missouri "Proud to be SEC" billboard. The Tigers will keep recruiting in Texas, the state that gave them Franklin, Gooden and former stars such as quarterback Chase Daniel and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon. Pinkel doubts the exit from the Big 12 will shut the door on Texas, not after several Texans have used Missouri as a path to the NFL.
As for the new recruiting grounds and new opponents, Pinkel is realistic. He knows that while the SEC will give the Tigers more money than they're accustomed to, no one in the league is going to hand Missouri anything else. "You've got to prove yourself," Pinkel said. "This whole thing is you've got to earn respect. This is not real complex. There are no predictions here. Nothing. The bottom line is you're one of the new teams, and you've got to earn respect."