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SI FOR KIDS
That rumbling noise coming out of the Show Me State is from a Tigers team hungry to prove that it's for real
City, Mo., home of Grant Wistrom, then the most coveted young athlete in the state and later a two-time All-America defensive end at Nebraska. "Grant was the type of player you could rebuild a program around," Smith recalls. "Naturally, I was excited about the prospect of meeting him. But the morning I was supposed to go down to see him, he called to cancel. But, hey, that was Missouri football back then. You considered yourself lucky just to get into a kid's living room."
Smith chuckles at the memory, only because he can. His team is fresh off its first winning season in 14 years, and, more significantly, no longer does national signing day in the Show Me State resemble a scene from Independence Day. This year's freshman class includes offensive lineman Justin Bland, the state's top high school lineman last year, and defensive end Justin Smith, another Missouri native, whom upperclassmen raved about during summer workouts. Both will play extensively this season. "There's a lot of high school talent here," Smith says. "To be a winning program, keeping players in state has to be our first goal."
That's the same blueprint Smith followed at Tulane and Arizona, where he forged his reputation as the game's Bob Vila by building decrepit programs into bowl teams. Though Missouri is still in need of a few finishing touches (a fullback, a couple of receivers, another defensive lineman or two), the foundation has been laid. "Who can predict the future?" says quarterback Corby Jones, who played his high school ball less than five miles from Faurot Field. "I do know we've put expectations back into the program, which is a start."
Jones, a tough and charismatic senior, carries the heaviest expectations of any Tiger. Last season he accounted for more than 55% of Missouri's offense and was selected first-team All-Big 12, beating out Michael Bishop of Kansas State and Scott Frost of Nebraska. This year he is on everyone's list of Heisman Trophy candidates. "When you talk about quarterbacks, you talk about their physical attributes," says Colorado coach Rick Neuheisel, who helped develop Troy Aikman and Kordell Stewart, among others. "Jones is as powerful as a running back, but his biggest attribute is that he's a great leader. The Missouri kids rally around him."
The Tigers will rally around him even more this season, since Jones's father, Curtis, a 10-year assistant with the Tigers, died of a heart attack on July 26. "I know what he'd want me to do," says Corby. "And I know what he'd want us to do as a team."
Jones will direct an offense that boasts depth on the line but is thin at fullback and wide receiver, where three walk-ons could see significant action. The Tigers don't plan to shy away from passing, though. "The key to the last five games last season [of which Missouri won four] was that Corby was very effective as a passer," Smith says. "We want to see the continued development of our passing game, with us throwing more to the tight ends and to guys out of the backfield."
An undersized defense, which coughed up 30.2 points (84th in the country) and 386.5 yards a game last season, is cause for concern. So is the schedule. Four of Missouri's five toughest games this seasonOhio State, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Texas Techwill be on the road. As for the longer-term schedule for joining the Big 12's elite, the Tigers aren't in the living room yet, but they are on the doorstep.
1997 record: 7-5 (5-3, 3rd in Big 12
Quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Corby Jones has the potential to become only the 11th player in NCAA history to both rush and throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season.... Wide receiver Kent Layman should improve on his 21-reception, 534-yard totals of last year.... The move of small but speedy Marquis Gibson from defensive end to outside linebacker should improve the pass rush.
Schedule strength: 52nd of 112
Oct. 24 at Nebraska
Nov. 21 vs. Kansas State
A quarterback with the smarts, charisma and talent of Jones can be good for three or four extra wins; look for the Tigers to finish 8-3.
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