COLUMBIA — Mason Gray, the 9-year-old boy from Lee’s Summit, who has autism and dressed up as Missouri coach Gary Pinkel for Halloween (as well as for Saturday’s 31-3 victory over Tennessee at Memorial Stadium), was among the big topics of conversation at Monday’s MU football media day.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
Here’s the photo that made the rounds on Twitter:
It also found its way to Pinkel’s cell phone a few times.
“I got that sent to me by a friend in Chicago, Cleveland and two people here in Columbia like within 20 seconds,” Pinkel said. “They said the boy looks a lot better than you do.”
Pinkel stopped to talk with Gray before Tiger Walk and visited him again on the turf at Faurot Field after the game.
“He’s a neat young man and it was very flattering,” Pinkel said. “I don’t know what his parents were thinking. … It was really neat to see him after the game and give him a hug. He was running all over the field and sweating and everything, but it was great to see him after the game.”
Up next, Missouri returns to the road against Kentucky, 2-6 and 0-4 in the SEC.
The Tigers probably won’t have a good-luck charm anywhere near as amazing as Gray in Lexington, Ky., but he’ll undoubtedly be rooting hard as Pinkel’s squad tries to reach 9-1.
The Wildcats are struggling, but remain dangerous as Jen Smith of the Lexington Herald-Leader tells us in answering five questions about the upcoming game with Missouri. Be sure to read her stuff leading up to the game and follow her on Twitter:
• Are people generally pleased with Mark Stoops’ first season with the Wildcats? What gains have you seen from the program during these eight games?
Fans were ready for a change and showed their appreciation by showing up in record numbers for Stoops’ first spring game, which had a crowd of 50,831. That number was larger than all but two announced crowds at Commonwealth Stadium last season. In general, fans seem to understand that this is going to take some time, that it’s a “process” as Stoops likes to say regularly. They understood UK had a stretch of four games — Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama — against some of the best teams and defenses in the country. It’s also helped Stoops considerably that UK managed to put together the highest-rated recruiting class in history in his first try at it (just 66 days into the job) and that the current class is among the top 10 in the nation, according to Rivals.
Kentucky still has as many wins (two) as it did all of last season, but it has been competitive in games where it was not competitive a season ago, including dramatic comebacks on the road at South Carolina and Mississippi State. There have been few blowouts (save an Alabama loss) and no shutouts, so fans seem to be happy with overall progress.
• How much of Maxwell Smith will we see or is it Jalen Whitlow’s show as long as he’s healthy? What separates the two sophomore quarterback’s on the field of play?
It’s Jalen Whitlow’s position the rest of the season, barring any injuries, which were the only things that kept him out against Alabama and then partially against Mississippi State. He didn’t play the entire game against Alabama State solely because UK had a big lead and Whitlow has been battling ankle and shoulder injuries and coaches didn’t want him to get hurt. As long as the game is still competitive (one way or another) and Whitlow isn’t injured again, he will be Kentucky’s quarterback mainly because of his ability to make defenses respect the run. The sophomore is UK’s third-leading rusher with 63 carries for 436 yards and five touchdowns and he’s been fairly accurate as a passer, mostly on short routes. Smith was more of a danger to go long, but he also has been battling injuries this season and hasn’t been terribly effective that way either.
• Assuming senior James Franklin remains sidelined, what are the chances Kentucky can force redshirt freshman Maty Mauk into a few mistakes? How good are the Wildcats’ two rush ends, Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith?
Dupree and Smith are a dangerous combination when both are healthy and on the field, because teams can’t double team both of them. Together, they have 11 sacks for 37 yards and they probably should’ve had a few more, but missed. Dupree is more than just an end, too. UK’s coaches have been using multiple defensive schemes to try to mask obvious disadvantages and depth issues and Dupree has been key, also playing at linebacker. With a partially torn pectoral muscle, Dupree had his best career game against Mississippi State (13 tackles, including two for a loss and a sack) and likely will continue to get better. He has had a sack in each of the last six games he’s played and will be trying to get one Saturday, too.
• Kentucky’s offense was already struggling, but how much does Alex Montgomery’s torn ACL and the possibility Ryan Timmons won’t be available either further hamper the attack? Who will the Wildcats lean on for production?
It hurts in a big way. Offensive coordinator Neal Brown came in wanting to run his Air Raid offense that came from Texas Tech, but he didn’t inherit the weapons to play that way. In fact, UK is running the ball 55 percent of the time. To ground the Air Raid further, the Cats are without their second- and third-best wide receivers in Timmons (who also is a key running threat) and Montgomery. Look for Javess Blue, UK’s top receiver until getting injured in pregame before Alabama State, to return and be a primary target along with now healthy receivers Jeff Badet and Demarco Robinson. A.J. Legree also has been getting a lot of mention this week leading up to the game.
• Around Kansas City, the running joke is that Kansas’ football season ends when its basketball season begins. Does the same hold true at Kentucky, which is a national basketball powerhouse with a struggling football program much like the Jayhawks?
Let’s just say basketball isn’t losing interest because of football. There were still a record number of tents around Memorial Coliseum to get free tickets to watch a basketball practice to start the season. But fans also love recruiting in all forms and Stoops has helped keep interest high with that incoming recruiting class, currently ranked No. 8 in the nation by Rivals. It helps that the key player in that class, quarterback Drew Barker, is an in-state kid and the Cats are still waiting for another highly touted in-stater, Matt Elam, to make a commitment, likely either to UK or Alabama. There also are plans in the works for a $110 million renovation to Commonwealth Stadium and other football facilities, which has helped sustain interest in the future of football.