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The Mizzou Exchange: Dave Matter (Part One)

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Over the course of the last two months, Dave Matter and I have been, on and off, exchanging e-mails as part of the "Mizzou Exchange" idea we executed a few times back on Mizzou Sanity.  Matter is the Columbia Tribune's football beat writer, plus he has a blog entitled Behind the Stripes on the Trib's website.  (In fact, here are parts one and two of my Exchange with Matter last year.)  Schedules prevented us from knocking this out in a timely manner, so for context I'll break this two-part post into three sections: Pre-Spring Football, During Spring Football, and Post-Spring Football.

Without further adieu, here is my discussion with Matter on all things Mizzou Football.

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL

The Boy: Thanks for doing this again, Dave.  You were embedded with the 2007 Mizzou football team as closely as anybody.  Do you have any favorite unsung memories of '07 (meaning either moments that you witnessed that most people did not, or things that happened on the field that stick out to you even though nobody talks about them)?

Dave Matter: For me, the most surreal moment of the season came in Boulder, a few minutes after Missouri put the finishing touches on Colorado. I was standing just outside the end zone alongside some of the other reporters as the team came filing off the field. They slapped hands with a throng of MU fans, who were the only people left in the stadium, and then, as the line of players died down, Pinkel emerged and the crowd started chanting his name. His face lit up, but you could tell he was a little embarrassed by the attention. Fans were doing the "We're not worthy" bow as he ran by. I turned to my editor, Joe Walljasper, who's seen his share of Missouri coaches crash and burn over the years, and said, "Did you ever think you'd see the day? All of a sudden, the guy's a friggin' hero."

I don't think I lose any credibility or objectivity by admitting it was nice to see the players and coaches enjoy the entire season, but on that day, and probably throughout the rest of the season, it was pretty cool to see the fans embrace the coach and soak up the moment. A couple weeks later, after the Kansas victory and a day after the Tigers were voted No. 1, Pinkel showed up for his radio show at the SportsZone and walked into a packed house and a standing ovation. Nice moment for Gary, I'm sure, but after all the turbulence and near-misses over the last few decades, I thought it was a better experience for the fans. Here was a day (and a coach) they could stand up and celebrate.

Winning 12 games will do wonders for your reputation around town, but there's something about the way fans in Columbia responded to all the success. It's been a treat to witness.

Click 'Full Story' for more.

TB: So thanks to the lovely Trib archive, I dug up an article that you wrote the week before Gary Pinkel's first game as Mizzou coach.  Here's one passage:

"Kids are so selfish nowadays," he said. "We used to get kids 18 years ago that came in and understood the team concept and understood they were secondary to the team. It's not like that anymore.

"But what we do is deprogram them into team players. That clearly defines your role on the team. Our kids open up their lockers and they see their team covenant with their signatures right on it. We just don't see it. We read it, too."

Before important team meetings, MU's seniors will stand up and read the covenant out loud, and every Friday the players will resign the document, keeping the system alive.

"There's a lot of little things in our program that define who we are," he said.

You read that now, and you realize that the teamwork, compassion, and 'family' togetherness that made this '07 Mizzou team stick out so much was what Pinkel has been working toward all along.  It sounded like coachspeak at the time (and it probably was), but it's obviously no coincidence that the best senior leadership Pinkel's had, and the most well-ingrained 'team first' attitude (combined with some once-in-a-lifetime talent, of course) produced the most successful season of Pinkel's tenure.

I have two questions:

1 - What differences do you see in Gary Pinkel Version 2001 and Version 2007 (personality, coaching style, etc.)?

2 - How sustainable is this level of 'team covenant', especially as Mizzou slowly pulls in more and more high-profile recruits?

DM: From my perspective, Pinkel's changes came as a result of seeing his tried and true approach to dealing with players become obsolete as one generation of players evolved into the next. Some helpful prodding by former players opened his eyes, as did the death of Aaron O'Neal in 2005, that Pinkel and his staff had to change their ways around the team. One of his longtime assistants told me a few weeks ago that the 2005 season, the 7-5 year after O'Neal's death, was by far the best coaching job this staff has ever done. "We came this close to losing the entire team," the coach told me, holding up  his fore finger and thumb about a centimeter apart. Honestly, I don't believe Pinkel truly changed his personality or found this inner nice guy that had been in hiding for 50 years. By all accounts, away from football, the guy has always been funloving, loyal and compassionate. What he did was drop his guard in front of his players, and that, I believe, pushed them to fight for him on the field. In the past, players probably feared him, maybe had some respect for him. But now it's obvious they not only respect him, they genuinely like the man and love playing for him. One small thing that I've noticed over the past two seasons that Pinkel is done: Before every practice, he stands outside the facility where the concrete meets the grass and greets every player as they jog onto the field, whether it's an All-American or anonymous walk-on. I didn't see that from him in 2001-03.

As for the second question, Pinkel's not going to compromise the most precious parts of his program just because he's bringing in a higher caliber of player. He still believes in "deprogramming" the selfishness out of these guys when they land on campus. Obviously, I don't see what happens behind the scenes, but I doubt he has to consciously do this as much these days, and for one reason: The current players have bought into this mentality so much that a culture within the team has been formed. When high school players come in for their visits, they get a glimpse of that culture, and once they're thrown into it in August, they adapt quickly or they're leaving quickly. This is starting to sound a little philosophical, but I think once the groundwork of the program is established and that culture takes over--i.e., you've got high school superstars like Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin advocating that cause--the deprogramming becomes self sufficient. It becomes, more or less, buy in our get out.

TB: It certainly helps when the most highly-touted player in the incoming class (Blaine Gabbert) seems to have completely and totally bought into the "team" concept from the get-go.

I think the biggest test of the team culture and the concept of "deprogramming" will come in 2009, when this year's senior class departs.  Never mind that we'll be having to replace the play and talent of Daniel, Coffman, Saunders, Brown/Madison, Sulak/Chavis, Hood, Christopher/Alexander, Bridges/Garrett, and William Moore (not to mention potentially Danario Alexander or Sean Weatherspoon...or technically Jeremy Maclin)...in '09 there will hardly be enough seniors to even vote for captains--seriously, that's not much of an exagerration.  If Danario does go pro, there are four seniors on offense at any level--Jared Perry, Jon Gissinger, Kurtis Gregory, and Dain Wise.  If Weatherspoon were to go pro, there wouldn't be many on D either--just Townson, Maples, Connell Davis, Del Howard, and Hardy Ricks.  And of that bunch, who will carry the "senior leadership" mantle and lead by example?  More than pure talent and experience, that will be one of the more interesting questions this time next year.

And actually, the lead-in to '09 brings me to one of the more interesting (to me) questions for '08: redshirting.  Starting in '05, Pinkel really loosened up the leash when it came to redshirting.  In his first four years, it was basically "You're redshirting unless you can really, really make a difference."  But beginning with Daniel, Coffman & Christopher in '05, true frosh have gotten more PT.  Last year, Derrick Washington, Luke Lambert, Andrew Gachkar, Carl Gettis, and Tyler Crane all played.

My question is, with such a massive rebuilding/reloading project on the horizon for '09, does it make sense to be more or less liberal with the redshirting in '08?  The two-deep is pretty strong at every position (sans WR, which needs a player or two to fill out the two-deep, and maybe TE), and the Andrew Gachkars and Kevin Rutlands and Tremane Vaughns of the world will still be taking most of the special teams duty, so the staff could pretty much redshirt the entire class minus a couple pass-catchers...but would that serve them well for '09, or would it benefit them to get guys like Blaine Gabbert, or Andrew Jones, or Wes Kemp, or one of 78 DEs, or one of the DBs on the field in blowouts just so they get their footing before having to carry a lot of weight the next year?  I say redshirt 'em all, but that's just me.

(It tells you something about the '08 squad that one of my biggest questions relates to '09, but...well...it's true.)

DM: The 2009 season will obviously be intriguing, perhaps a transition year depending on how quickly some young players can develop this year. I don’t have an opinion one way or the other on redshirting seeing that I don’t have any investment in those decisions, but if I were a fan, I would like to see the coach of my team take an aggressive approach to playing true freshmen.

In today’s game, you have to live in the now. Sit around and wait for three years down the road and you’ll be looking for work two years down the road. If you have young players who deserve to play early, suit ’em up and let ’em play. That sends a message to recruits who are looking to play immediately — and the best ones usually are — and lets your veterans know that seniority doesn’t always equal playing time. There’s no substitute for experience, and that’s why I’m probably an outsider in my view that there’s a real upside to giving Gabbert some snaps in 2008. Yeah, it’ll cost him a year of eligibility, but if the experience makes him a significantly better player in ’09, ’10 and ’11, then it might be worth the year.

As long as the decision to play a freshman is made early on — and not, say, late in the year as in the case of Justin Gage or Tony Temple — I don’t mind seeing the coaches pull the trigger on these guys. Playing freshmen, as long as it’s done responsibly, is the sign of a healthy program. It sends a message of urgency to recruits and veterans

DURING SPRING FOOTBALL

TB: I agree for the most part.  I think it ended up being a mistake to play Tyler Crane in '07 (and maybe Del Howard in '06), but in all it's been a pretty good batting average for the coaches in regard to the kids they've chosen not to redshirt.  You certainly can't question the success of Daniel, Danario Alexander, Jared Perry, Brock Christopher, Sean Weatherspoon, etc.

Like everybody else, I'm most interested in how the QB situation is handled--it would make a lot of sense to play Blaine Gabbert, but Chase Patton's still here and will very likely be better than Gabbert next August, so they'd have a pretty tough decision to make there.  I could go either way, really--getting Gabbert some game action would be good for '09, but if Patton's clearly the #2 QB, then it's hard to justify putting Gabbert ahead of him.

Anyway, that's what we can all discuss in August.  With April upon us, tell me some of the players (redshirt freshmen or others) who have been pleasant (and relatively unexpected) surprises so far.  It's almost been nice having so many of the proven regulars injured and laid up for the spring--it's given plenty of youngsters some time to shine.

DM: Here’s a few redshirt freshmen who have caught my eye:

Left tackle Elvis Fisher might not be king yet, but Dave Christensen is high on him guarding the edge. He’s lean but strong enough and fits the mold to play the position in MU’s spread. I’d be surprised if they entrust the No. 1 left tackle job to a redshirt freshman with zero playing experience, especially considering he’d be protecting the franchise in Heisman finalist Chase Daniel. But, if he outplays Dain Wise in the spring and summer, the position could be his. (That goes for just about anyone. Christensen and staff are pretty steadfast in the philosophy that the best five linemen start, regardless of their position background.) I really like Colin Brown on the right side, just a huge but nimble enough presence on the edge. (Hence his lone first-team vote on the postseason AP All-Big 12 team last year.) But the left side will be interesting to watch. Remember, back in 2004, Missouri went into the season handing the left tackle position over to another redshirt freshman in Tyler Luellen. Christensen moved Scott Paffrath over to the right side to make way for Luellen, but after two struggling performances, Luellen became a reserve for the rest of the year (until the season finale). Perhaps that will serve as a lesson learned or evidence that Christensen wouldn’t balk at trying it again.

Cornerback Trey Hobson probably could have been part of the rotation last year but Missouri resisted the urge to pull his redshirt, in hindsight a shrewd move considering Gettis was clearly going to play and eventually start. I had no doubts Hobson would be part of the mix this year, but he’s still sitting No. 3 at one of the corner spots, behind No. 1 Castine Bridges and backup Tremane Vaughns, both of whom have made multiple plays on the ball this spring. I like what I saw from Bridges in the second half last year. He’s physical, supports the run and plays with some toughness. But, back to Hobson, he was one of the secondary’s best playmakers last August. If he does more of the same the rest of the spring and summer, it’ll be hard to keep him off the field.

As for the D-tackle position, loyal readers will know how much value I put on this position. You need DTs to perform at a high level to have any sort of effective defense. And you need more than two of them. This is a huge question mark for the Tigers this year, in my opinion. If Ziggy Hood plays like he did in the Cotton Bowl, that’s an obvious plus. He was nearly unblockable against a very good SEC offensive line. Problem was, he didn’t seem to play at that level the rest of the season. He’s always had the potential to be a dominant D-tackle in the Big 12, but he’s got to bring it every week, and every play every week. Kid’s got a good attitude — he could be a co-captain — and I suspect the loss of Lorenzo Williams will motivate Hood to become the group’s leader. But he’s got to bring it. But this question about the young guys, and in Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno, the Tigers definitely have two players who look the part of a Big 12 interior tandem. So far, they’ve been overpowering in 1-on-1 drills. Resonno has especially caught my eye, but if they both continue to develop and earn some snaps this fall, MU has a nice looking tandem for years to come. That position is all about playing with aggression on every snap. They have to be play, for lack of a better word, pissed off at the guy in front of them. As cuddly as Zo Williams was off the field, the guy was an animal in the trenches. All the speed, strength and technique doesn’t mean much if you don’t play like your jockstrap is on fire and the only extinguisher is in the quarterback’s back pocket. The development of Hamilton and Resonno this year could go a long way toward Missouri sustaining the success it had on defense for years to come.

The coaches will give Gilbert Moye every chance to earn a spot in the safety rotation this season. Matt Eberflus really likes him and was tempted to pull the trigger last year and let Moye play as a true freshman, but it became obvious he wasn’t ready to make the transition to a position he’d rarely played. Moye is obviously a gifted athlete; he just wasn’t mature enough to handle the demands of playing as a freshman. He was the superstar for a smaller school in a small area in Texas, and I think the transition to Division I practices was a little rougher than he expected. The tempo and intensity of practices had his head spinning, and he probably put a lot of pressure on himself to earn a starting job immediately. The redshirt year, he’s told me, was a blessing in disguise.

Other than that, two interior O-linemen, Austin Wuebbels and Jayson Palmgren, are getting valuable experience working with the second unit. Michael Keck looks much more comfortable playing defensive end. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get some snaps this fall on passing downs. Tailback De’Vion Moore has already earned some carries this season, in my opinion. Nice little playmaker that runs north and south but with a little wiggle.

Part Two tomorrow!