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MISSOURI IN THE GARY PINKEL ERA HAS MADE ITS NAME ON elite quarterback play, but in 2011 it's what the team might do to opposing passers that could put it in the Big 12 title hunt. One year after leading the conference in sacks (38) and scoring defense (16.1 points per game), the Tigers bring back their best group of pass rushers yet, even after defensive end Aldon Smith's early departure to the NFL.
"We're very fortunate to still have depth and competition at defensive end," Pinkel says. The options begin with junior Brad Madison, a converted offensive lineman with a nonstop motor, who earned second-team All--Big 12 honors as a backup in 2010. Fellow all-leaguer Jacquies Smith (no relation to Aldon) anchors the other end, while Michael Sam, a second-team Freshman All-America, and redshirt freshman Kony Ealy, a star in spring practice, fill out a depth chart that must read like a Stephen King novel to Big 12 quarterbacks.
As for Missouri's own quarterback, sophomore James Franklin all but clinched the starting job when Tyler Gabbert, younger brother of departed starter Blaine, announced in May that he was transferring from the program. Pinkel's Tigers have transitioned well to new QBs: Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert were stars as first-year starters, and Franklin is on track to match them. In mop-up duty as a true freshman last season, he completed 11 of 14 passes for 106 yards. And at 6' 2", 225 pounds he can threaten with his legs: He rushed for 116 yards on 23 carries, including a push-the-pile three-yard touchdown run to seal an upset over then No. 1 Oklahoma last October.
"James is a faster, quicker athlete than Blaine and Chase," says Pinkel. "He's got a good arm, too. He just needs to continue to get better reading defenses. My bigger concern is that the people around James play at the level they need to play at."
It's only a minor worry, though, because the receiving corps features T.J. Moe (92 catches for 1,045 yards in 2010), Michael Egnew (90 for 762) and Jerrell Jackson (50 for 656), while all-conference tackles Dan Hoch and Elvis Fisher should keep Franklin off the grass.
With this level of emphasis on the passer on both sides of the ball, Missouri should be equipped to challenge the conference's best.
COACH Gary Pinkel (11th year) 77--49 (42--38 in Big 12)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR David Yost