IF THE MARK OF AN ELITE PROGRAM LIES IN ITS ABILITY TO CONSISTENTLY produce top talent at one position (as Penn State has done at linebacker and USC at tailback), then a quarterback boom has the Tigers poised to become a national power. Since coach Gary Pinkel arrived in Columbia nine years ago, Missouri has blossomed from an offensive nonfactor into a quarterbacks' cradle. His last two protégés—Brad Smith, the NCAA's most prolific all-purpose quarterback, and Chase Daniel, Mizzou's first conference offensive player of the year—were integral to the Tigers' transformation into perennial North division contenders.
Pinkel's latest pupil might be better than them both. Like Smith, Blaine Gabbert has a strong right arm and sweet feet. Like Daniel, he is an accurate passer who sees the field well. That's thanks in large part to Gabbert's familiarity with the spread offense, which he ran at Parkway West High in Ballwin, Mo., as one of the best QB prospects in the country. Oh, and did we mention that he's 6' 5" and weighs 240 pounds?
As a sophomore starter in '09, Gabbert flashed the kind of potential that could have Mizzou making a leap from playing in second-tier postseason games (or third tier, as was the case in last season's Texas Bowl) to headlining a BCS bowl. A second-team all-Big 12 nod, he threw for more yards (3,593) than either Daniel or Smith in their first years as starters and finished second in the conference to Texas's Colt McCoy in efficiency rating (140.5).
Gabbert did most of this after suffering a high right ankle injury in the conference opener against Nebraska. "I had to rearrange all my mechanics after that because I couldn't really put much [weight] on that leg," Gabbert says. "It threw my game off."
Gabbert worked intensely with the Tigers' medical and strength and conditioning staffs to stay in the games, and that determination earned him major leadership points from coaches and teammates. He further bolstered his reputation last spring by becoming more vocal and taking ownership of the offense.
With the departures of Jared Perry and Danario Alexander (the nation's leading pass catcher in '09) costing Mizzou almost 67% of its receiving yardage, Gabbert will lean on returning wideouts Jerrell Jackson, Wes Kemp and T.J. Moe and trust that the experience they gained as underclassmen last year will keep the Tigers' offense humming. "That's the good thing about our system," Gabbert says. "You can plug people in, and they're gonna be extremely productive."
That's true, as long as Gabbert can remain consistent, especially at home. For all of his brilliance on the road—he completed 61.6% of his passes, threw just five interceptions and took a mere six sacks while leading Missouri to a 5-1 record—he faltered at Faurot Field, where he was more than five percentage points less accurate, threw almost double the picks and was sacked more than twice as often during a 3-4 stretch. He expects to be at his best by the Tigers' Oct. 23 homecoming date with Oklahoma, whom Mizzou last defeated 12 years ago at Faurot. If Gabbert were to engineer an upset, it wouldn't just mark a breakthrough for him; it could be the start of something big for the entire program.