COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) – Gary Pinkel typically begins his weekly news conference with the injury report. The Missouri coach was most pleased to say everyone available for the season opener.
It’s a huge plus for a school entering Year 2 in the SEC and trying to show that it really belongs. The players they tried to do without too often contributed to a 5-7 belly flop that ended a string of seven consecutive bowl trips.
The Tigers open against heavy underdog Murray State on Saturday night, and they’re all ready to go.
Pinkel said the most exciting development of fall camp was not an emerging player or a unit that made strides.
“We stayed healthy,” the coach said. “That’s the No. 1 thing.”
This time last year, all-Big 12 running back Henry Josey was in a long-term rehab program from a knee injury, the offensive line was a mess and both backup quarterbacks were coming off brushes with the law. Quarterback James Franklin was working back from shoulder surgery and hoping to make it through the year unscathed, but instead was dogged by an assortment of ailments that sidelined him for four games.
Depth was tested again and again, especially on the offensive line, and often was found wanting.
“I’ve been in this a long time and we all know the healthier you are, the more success you have,” Pinkel said. “There’s a quiet confidence having the same guy lining up next to you.”
New offensive coordinator Josh Henson was the co-offensive line coach last year and thought he had enough bodies to compete. Based on the preseason pecking order, five of the top seven were hurt at one point.
That increased the challenge for Franklin, and for redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser when he was thrown into the mix when Franklin was out with assorted injuries.
“There’s fallout when you lose your starting quarterback, there’s fallout when you lose five offensive linemen,” Pinkel said. “You don’t distribute the ball efficiently. We’re sitting there fighting to get first downs.”
Linemen thrown into duty have valuable experience in an offense that’s undergone a few alterations but probably won’t look too much different. Coaches have said there’ll be more straight-ahead plays, and Franklin could have company in the backfield at times.
“I don’t think it’ll be radically different,” Henson said. “We still are what we are, a spread team that has really good receivers.”
Running back was in capable hands with 1,000-yard rusher Kendial Lawrence last year, but the shifty Josey can be more of a handful. He was all-Big 12 in 2011 though he missed the end of the season after blowing out the knee making a cut on the sideline, and since the start of camp coaches have said he’s all the way back.
“The excitement level is very, very unexplainable,” Josey said. “I mean, I’ve been excited for a long time for this moment to come, and finally it’s here.”
Franklin is one of four team captains and he plans on leading the way. Injuries or not, he accepts his share of responsibility for last season and points out the quarterback must be a difference-maker.
“If a game ever did go bad, even though it’s not just one player’s fault, I’d rather them blame me than somebody else,” Franklin said. “So that’s something that really motivates, not letting my teammates down.”
Top players on defense are linebacker Andrew Wilson and cornerback E.J. Gaines. The Tigers have produced a turnover in 30 consecutive games dating to October 2010.
Murray State is also coming off a sub-.500 season, going 5-6, among the setbacks a 69-3 spanking at Florida State. Missouri is the lone name opponent on the schedule for the Racers, members of the Ohio Valley Conference.
This is their first game against an SEC school since 2005, although sophomore quarterback Maikhail Miller is a recent transfer from Mississippi.
“It’s always an exciting time to open a new season even though you’re playing an opponent that’s a little tougher than most,” coach Chris Hatcher said. “It’s a fun week. There’s really not a whole lot of pressure on us.”
Under Pinkel, Missouri is 9-0 with an average score of 50-7 against FCS teams and nearly hit those numbers its only other meeting against Murray State with a 47-7 win to open 2006 that featured a school-record five touchdown passes from future NFL quarterback Chase Daniel in his first career start.
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