Early bowl preparations keep Tigers on the move

Friday, December 19, 2003

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Usually at this time of the year the Missouri football office is concentrating on one thing: recruiting.

This season it has been unusually busy, but coach Gary Pinkel isn't complaining. For the first time in his three seasons, and for the first time in five years overall, the Tigers (8-4) are bowl-bound.

Missouri began a stretch of five straight practices on Thursday in preparation for the Independence Bowl Dec. 31 against Arkansas (8-4).

"We're recruiting, we're preparing, we're preparing practices, we're game-planning," Pinkel said Thursday. "We have a lot of things going on, but that's good.

"We want to have all those kinds of issues at this time of the year."

Missouri is scheduled to arrive in Shreveport, La., on Dec. 27. Before that the Tigers plan to get most of their important work done.

"It's important for them to have a good deal of their preparation in terms of video evaluation and offensive and defensive scheme before they even get on that plane," Pinkel said. "It's very important they understand that, it's critically important in our philosophy in how to handle those bowls."

That will leave time for more off-field activities while in Shreveport, although that city is not exactly filled with attractions and distractions.

"I want them to have a bowl experience, I want them to have a lot of fun," Pinkel said. "It's very important that they enjoy themselves.

"I think the bowl experience should be that way. However, there's a time when you have to lock in."

This is a huge game for the Missouri seniors, who stuck with it and are enjoying success for the first time in college. Offensive tackle Rob Droege envisioned four bowl rings when he signed his letter of intent at Missouri, so he's going to savor this one and only experience.

"There is no tomorrow for us. This is it," Droege said. "All the seniors, we're trying to soak it in and enjoy it, but at the same time we understand how important it is."

Droege is a bit jealous of the underclassmen, now that Pinkel has the program on track. Missouri went to bowl games in 1997 and '98, and he was a redshirt freshman when Larry Smith was fired in 2000.

"We went through some coaching changes and personnel changes and everything else," Droege said. "Coach Pinkel has turned it around in a hurry and this program is not going to anywhere but up.

"It's going to compete for national championships soon."

New players in the program are every bit as excited.

"I might not be a senior, but it's a big deal for me, too," said safety Dedrick Harrington, a redshirt freshman from Mexico, Mo. "I've been living just miles down the road and seeing the program struggle and struggle, and now we've got good coaches and players who believe in the system and are willing to work.

"We're reaping the benefits now."

Players and coaches don't seem to mind that Shreveport isn't a vacation destination.

"We're honored to be going there," Pinkel said. "I think Shreveport is a great place. They want us, we're excited about being there."

The biggest thing for quarterback Brad Smith is extending the season with his teammates.

"I know I'm going to be with our guys down there," Smith said. "To be able to spend time with each other and then play a game is going to be a lot of fun."

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