COLUMBIA — On the eve of his team’s first practice of the spring, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was decidedly energetic, upbeat and positive, not that last season gave him any reason to feel that way.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Yet, Pinkel — who spoke about a variety of topics in his office on Monday — made it clear that not only had the sting of a 5-7 season not yet worn off, but he also has attacked the offseason the only way he knows how: with a familiar mantra that has become synonymous with his 13-year tenure as coach.
“I think there’s kind of a relief,” Pinkel said. “You get to go work and do something about it. If you’re a competitor, it’s the first time in eight years we haven’t been to a bowl game, so ... it was difficult. And it should be.
“But … even when we were building our program, and the tough years we had building, we’d always go back to the process of every day doing things right. I know it’s boring, but it’s the truth. What we do and the attitude that we take.”
So yes, Pinkel has continued to follow his program-building guidebook, the one he learned firsthand from former Washington legend Don James. It has, for the most part, served him well at Missouri, where he has compiled a 90-61 overall record since his arrival in 2000.
“When you have some adversity,” Pinkel said, “you focus on your foundation.”
Which means analyzing every single aspect of your program, starting with the offense. The group struggled mightily last season, and while injuries played a large role — seven of the Tigers’ top ten linemen missed significant time — there was much debate about whether the Tigers’ spread offense could work in the traditionally defensive-minded Southeastern Conference.
But Pinkel — who has tabbed co-offensive line coach Josh Henson to replace trusted assistant and offensive coordinator David Yost, who resigned in December — made it clear that while the Tigers’ offense might be altered, they won’t stray too far from their spread heritage.
“I think (Texas) A&M has proved ... you can run a spread offense in this league and be successful,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel did add, though, that with starting tight end Eric Waters back, and promising redshirt freshman Sean Culkin added to the mix, Missouri may look to utilize the tight end a little bit more in sets where he’s not spread out.
“It’s hard to say now, exactly, but it would be fair and accurate it would probably be less empty,” said Pinkel, who also hinted at the possibility of more play-action passes.
Of course, none of that matters if Pinkel can’t find the right triggerman to get his athletes the ball. While senior James Franklin, a two-year starter, is listed atop the pre-spring depth chart after a disappointing and injury-plagued campaign, Pinkel made it clear that backups Corbin Berkstresser, a redshirt sophomore, and Maty Mauk, a redshirt freshman, will have a chance to compete for the job.
“In this situation, without what I call ... (an) ‘established’ quarterback, we’ll pretty much, with those top three guys, just have even reps with those 1s, 2s, 3s and just keep rolling them right through,” Pinkel said.
Pinkel spoke highly of Mauk, a three-star prospect out of Kenton, Ohio, who posted some gaudy numbers in high school out of a spread offense.
“He’s a really competitive player; that’s an understatement,” Pinkel said. “He’s got a very strong arm, can throw the ball 75 yards.”
And while Pinkel said it’s unclear how long it will take him to settle on a starting quarterback, he again offered up as an example the 2002 season, when freshman Brad Smith beat out a senior and three-year starter at quarterback in Kirk Farmer. That season stands as proof, he said, that he and his staff will pick the best guy, regardless of experience.
“At the end of spring, will we be able to say, ‘Oh, it’s a tie between these two guys?’ Or is one going to shine more than the other? I don’t know,” Pinkel said. “The most experienced player out there who, at times, has played at a very high level, was obviously James. But what I’m going to do is what I’ve always done in these situations, which is let the players determine how it turns out … and make sure there’s a real balance there in how you evaluate them.”
Pinkel, meanwhile, is optimistic that fixing the offense will help a defense that returns six starters from a unit that certainly had its moments last season but was a bit up and down.
“As the season went on, I thought our offensive problems and inability to score points … took a toll on our defense,” Pinkel said. “Our defense was out there a lot. I personally think our defense was much better than our stats reveal, but it is what it is. No excuses.”
Which might as well be the mantra for the 2013 season. Pinkel repeated multiple times Monday that he is “dedicated” and “driven” to reverse Missouri’s fortunes this year through good, old-fashioned hard work, a process that will begin at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday, when Missouri hits the practice field for the first time this spring.
But considering the toll injuries took on last year’s team, the 60-year old Pinkel — who said he feels as good as he did when he was 40, and isn’t considering retirement — also wouldn’t mind being the recipient of some good fortune.
“I’m saying more prayers this year,” Pinkel said with a laugh. “It would be nice if we could stay healthy.”
To reach Terez A. Paylor, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 816-234-4489. Follow him at Twitter.com/TerezPaylor.