Tigers want to remember O'Neal, forget 2004

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Missouri has a rallying cry for what the school hopes is a return to prominence: Remember Aaron O'Neal.

"One thing they are going to do, without question, is dedicate this season to Aaron," coach Gary Pinkel said. "That kind of just changes everything. I think it's a little bit bigger and more important than it has ever been, for obvious reasons."

O'Neal, a red-shirt freshman linebacker, collapsed and died after a preseason conditioning workout July 12.

"Well, we don't want it to be that he didn't die for anything," safety Jason Simpson said.

"He died on the field, he made the ultimate sacrifice, he was giving his all. ... It's a tragic thing, but you just have to get through this and respect him, and that's what we are trying to do."

Last season was a huge step backward for the program: a 5-6 finish marked by second-half collapses. Three blown double-digit leads -- against Troy, Oklahoma State and Kansas State -- took the Tigers from an early season ranking of 18th to out of the bowl picture.

The previous season, Missouri went to the Independence Bowl and appeared to be a program on the upswing.

"In the first three years of our program, we slowly started building respect within the Big 12 and nationally, and a year ago this time we had done quite a bit, and our players know it can go fast," Pinkel said. "We have a chance to earn respect back, and that's a huge motivation to me."

Now, Pinkel is feeling the heat. Besides the losing, Pinkel came under fire last season for his abrupt manner with boosters and media.

His biggest perception problem is that he's viewed as having put shackles on quarterback Brad Smith, who was not nearly as creative last season as he was his first two years.

An attack that was too conservative deserves much of the blame, but Smith also blames himself for not living up to expectations that had him on many preseason Heisman Trophy watch lists.

"It did kind of just affect me a little bit, the expectation factor, and not really knowing how to handle it," Smith said. "If I could go back, I would change it."

For his senior year, Smith will be operating a new offense patterned on the successful Utah attack. Pinkel also said Smith had been working to improve his throwing, footwork and all the other things that made a good quarterback.

"We have to throw and catch and rock and roll with it," Smith said. "As a quarterback it's my responsibility to get everybody to play at a high level by playing at a very high level myself. That's what I'm working at, that's where my focus is."

The Tigers were slow to pick up the new system in spring practice, but with more time Pinkel expects dramatic improvements.

"We want him to be a complete player, and he has worked very hard," Pinkel said. "I expect him to have a very good year."

Smith's junior year was a learning experience.

"Personally, I just learned what it takes to win, what you really had to focus on, what really matters," Smith said. "If we really focus on each play and give it our all every play with that complete focus, that's what it's going to take for us to be a good team."

Pinkel said he felt the team regressed in the kicking game, turnovers and fourth-quarter performance.

"As we all know, we were in every single game until the final moment," Pinkel said. "We didn't, obviously, handle some of the difficult situations well enough, which is my job. Those are habits of winning and we just don't have them yet."

The schedule is conducive to a fast start with five of the first seven games at home and a sixth, the opener against Arkansas State on Sept. 3, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.