COLUMBIA, Mo. -- As Gary Pinkel opens his second session of spring football as Missouri's head coach, he has made one thing clear: There is no pecking order.
A player could've been all-Big 12 or sitting the bench last season, but now each has an equal chance for a starting position in the fall. Pinkel stressed that his teams have always been run that way and always will.
"I think there's a lot of competition," Pinkel said Wednesday. "There's significantly more than we had a year ago at this time. The players are starting to learn what it's like to really fight for a spot on the depth chart and it's benefitting the team."
After four daily practices that ended Tuesday, two in pads and two in shorts, Pinkel said he's pleased with his team's effort so far.
"I think our football team has made a lot of gains in strength, speed, quickness, mental toughness and development," Pinkel said. "I think we've improved significantly, but we have a long way to go to be at the caliber we need to be program-wise.
"We're headed in the right direction."
The Tigers return six players on offense and eight on defense from a team that finished 4-7 last season and 3-5 in the Big 12. One of the biggest question marks is the quarterback position.
Kirk Farmer, who will be a senior, has been healthy for 14 games the past two seasons and started 13 of them. Darius Outlaw started games in Farmer's absence, but he is currently not enrolled in classes. Pinkel said he expects Outlaw to return for his junior year but added that he will not play quarterback.
Farmer's competition in that position will come from Sonny Riccio and Brad Smith, who both redshirted last year. Pinkel said he's been impressed with their work ethic in the off-season and now in spring practice.
"They're probably the two most competitive quarterbacks I've ever been around since I've ever coached," said Pinkel, who coached Chris Chandler, Mark Brunell and Billy Joe Holbert while the quarterbacks coach at Washington in the 1980s. "These two are the most competitive guys I've ever seen."
The biggest concern for Pinkel and his staff is the offensive line, which lost three starters to graduation and gave up just six quarterback sacks last season. Junior A.J. Ricker will return at center to continue his streak of 22 consecutive starts and Rob Droege returns after starting the final five games of 2001. Sophomores Joe Gianino and Tony Clinker and junior Cliff Young are slated to fill the missing spots.
Overall, Pinkel said he wants to increase his team's mental toughness and its hitting, both of which he said hurt the Tigers in the Big 12.
"We were just not a very physical football team last year," Pinkel said. "But we've had a good off-season and I think the players are ready to be a lot tougher both mentally and physically."