There was a dose of optimism and sadness for Gary Pinkel, Brad Smith and Jason Simpson on Wednesday. The Missouri head football coach, senior quarterback and senior safety talked to the media about the upcoming 2005 season, but it was tempered with the fact that they were just over a week removed from the death of red shirts freshman Aaron O’Neal.
Pinkel said that 2005 will be all about O’Neal. “One thing (the seniors) are going to do, without question, is they’re going to dedicate this season to Aaron. That kind of just changes everything.” Pinkel added that honoring O’Neal will give them another reason to perform, “I think it’s a little bit bigger and more important than it’s ever been, for obvious reasons.”
O’Neal’s legacy, besides being a football player, was that he was a kind, generous and always ready to share his smile.
“Aaron deserves all the honoring and all the remembering that you can have for someone, especially from us–his teammates–and the university. So we’re going to do our best to honor him and his family and to support them,” said Smith.
“He died on the field, he made the ultimate sacrifice,” Simpson said. “He didn’t hold anything back and I respect him for that. And I think every player that (knew) him and every person who knew him knew that that’s how he was.”
A memorial service is scheduled for Thursday morning at 11 AM at Mizzou Arena on the University of Missouri campus.
As far as football is concerned, the outlook, according to the players and coaches is bright, despite coming off a 5-6 season. Mizzou put together one of the best offenses in the nation in 2003 and earned a spot in the Independence Bowl after an 8-4 regular season. Despite losing to Arkansas in the bowl game, Mizzou was expected to contend for—if not win—the Big 12 North. Those expectations fell flat in 2004.
The offense seemingly dried up, as they finished 11th in the Big 12 in scoring offense, despite the defense’s rise to one of the best in the league. At one point MU suffered a five game losing streak and blew double digit leads to Troy, Oklahoma St., and Kansas St.
This year the offense has been tweaked. It will be more wide open with four and five receiver sets and there will be more shot-gun formations. The expectation is that it will open up more opportunities for Brad Smith to pass and run. After playing in a more conservative offense, Smith welcomes the change, even if it is a little uncomfortable.
“You do something for three years, you (get) a little nervous, but now that we’ve been in it,”, Smith said, “I’m so excited about it. And there’s so many opportunities for big plays that you’re willing to give up what you had before.”
Smith, who averaged over 1,200 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons, rushed for just 551 last year.
The offense will return seven starters from 2004, but gone is running back Damien Nash, who led the team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. He skipped his senior season to go pro and was drafted by the Titans. The running game will be left up to sophomores Marcus Woods and Tony Temple.
The defense will have even more holes to fill as it tries to replace eight starters, including defensive tackles Atiyyah Ellison and C.J. Mosely, who were both drafted (Mosley skipped his senior season) and the school’s all-time leader in tackles, linebacker James Kinney.
After such high expectations in 2004, Mizzou isn’t highly regarded in 2005—they’re picked to finish fourth in what could be a mediocre Big 12 North.
Pinkel said respect can come and go and right now it’s gone, “A year ago at this time we had, probably, quite a bit and my players know that it can go fast. So we’ve got a chance to earn some respect back and that’s a huge motivation, to me”.
Pinkel admits that his coaching was sub-par in 2005.
“I didn’t do a very good job.”
The Tigers will open the season on September 3 against Arkansas St. at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.