Last spring, Missouri had a massive chip on its shoulder when spring football practice kicked off.
The Tigers were coming off a dismal inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference. The program’s seven-year bowl streak was snapped during a 5-7 season that included a 2-6 conference record.
“Last year, we were like wounded animals,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “There was such an excitement to get going again.”
The excitement wasn’t much different Tuesday at Memorial Stadium in Columbia as the Tigers kicked off another spring, but there’s a different aura around the program now.
Missouri went 12-2 last season, winning the SEC East division and reaching the conference title game before outlasting Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Pinkel, who became the Tigers’ career leader with 102 coaching victories as a result of that bowl win, went from the hot seat last spring to signing what essentially amounts to a lifetime contract. He got a three-year extension through 2020 last week.
“It’s a different mentality this year,” senior running back Marcus Murphy said. “Last year, we were trying to get back on track and have a winning season. But this year, we want to build off what we did last year and do better than we did. We had a real good season and we want to use the confidence and all the momentum coming into this season.”
Of course, some things haven’t changed.
“Nobody really respects us still,” said senior nose guard Lucas Vincent, an Olathe North graduate. “They still think of us as the little brother in the SEC. But it doesn’t matter if we won 12 games last year. It’s a whole new season.”
Vincent said that, as a program, Missouri is constantly in the mode of proving itself and only consistency will change that.
“Year after year, every single year, they have to know that we’re real and we’re here to stay,” he said.
Beginning Aug. 30 against South Dakota State, a mere 171 days away, Missouri opens defense of its fourth division championship in the last seven seasons.
Officially, that’s when the drive begins to prove that 2013 wasn’t a fluke, but rather that a disappointing debut in 2012 was the aberration.
“The goals used to be just to get to a bowl game and everybody would be happy,” senior defensive end Markus Golden said. “But it’s not like that around here at Mizzou anymore. We want to go to the SEC championship or better.”
Unofficially, it started in January with Missouri’s “Winning Edge” offseason workout regimen, so Tuesday’s first spring practice was merely one more step in the journey.
“It’s a constant effort on our part (to teach fundamentals),” Pinkel said. “There’s only a couple ways you can become a better football player — one is you get stronger, you get faster, you get quicker. You physically change your body. Another one is the knowledge of your position. Then, the other one is fundamentals.
“That’s the only way you get better. There’s nothing else you can do. Those things are what we do year-round so we get out there and run a football play as a unit together.”Injury news
Sophomore tight end Sean Culkin, 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds, who is listed atop Missouri’s spring depth chart, was among three players Pinkel said were held from practice.
“Culkin hit his hand and has a real small fracture in his index finger,” Pinkel said. “He won’t need surgery, but we probably won’t get him back until we get back from the break.”
Junior cornerback Ernest Payton, 6-2 and 210 pounds, who tore his ACL in early September also remains limited. But he also might return after the break.
Finally, sophomore nose tackle Ricky Hatley “turned his ankle walking off a curb,” but he should return soon.