COLUMBIA — The first day of Missouri football's training camp opened Friday with an air of jubilation.
Despite an NCAA disciplinary ruling against three University of Missouri athletic programs that would limit scholarships and other recruiting privileges, fines and postseason bans for football, baseball and softball — Missouri has argued its case at appeal and is awaiting the NCAA's response — the Tigers have deftly turned this externally into a rallying point for the fan base and internally folded it into the underdog approach that has been consistent during head coach Barry Odom's tenure.
Or, as new starting quarterback Kelly Bryant put it after the team's first practice, "It would be easy to say we have a chip on our shoulder, but it is more like a boulder."
The rest of the offseason has pretty much been perfect for Missouri.
The Tigers landed Bryant as a graduate transfer from Clemson, and then managed to keep him and every other senior on the roster, in the fold after the NCAA said it would rubber-stamp immediate eligibility waivers for seniors who elected to transfer out. The team upgraded its practice fields, converting one entirely into artificial turf, and earlier this week unveiled the player areas of a $99 million south end zone facility.
"It's beautiful, man," junior running back Larry Rountree III said. "It humbles you a lot because last year, (our locker room) was in trailers for home games. I love the new facility. It's got a lot of stuff, and I just hope we use it to our advantage, and not just take it for granted."
The team has playmakers on both sides of the ball back from injury, including most notably tight ends Albert Okwuegbunam and Messiah Swinson, and cornerback Adam Sparks.
The team's energy and excitement rose off the field in waves like the heat as they went through stretches, drills, and 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 reps. The team has no shortage of players that dance or are otherwise unafraid to have fun during practice, something Odom encourages, from Aubrey Miller, to newcomers Bryant and wide receiver Johnathan Nance, to Sparks.
"It feels good, man. I've been dreaming about this," Sparks said while sporting a cheek-splitting grin. "I've been ready to come back. It's a blessing."
Sparks was with the second-team defense at corner as he works his way back from a shin fracture that sidelined him for several months starting in November, behind DeMarkus Acy, and said Friday was the best first day of camp for Missouri's defense in his three years.
A lot of that had to do not just with the Tigers' first-string defenders going against the best of the offense, but also the level of talent Missouri has to rotate in. Sparks, Akial Byers, Aubrey Miller Jr., Jamal Brooks, Richaud Floyd and Jordan Ulmer are all currently non-starters with at least two years of experience.
Five others have at least one season, and the defensive end position added former LSU and East Mississippi Community College end Sci Martin Jr. as well.
"I'm not even joking, I was on the sideline and I looked at the twos, and I looked at Yaya (Yasir Durant) and I go, 'Dude, our twos are really stacked,'" starting center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. "I was looking, and we've got Jarvis (Ware) and Sparks at corner, (Jordan) Ulmer's playing safety, I saw Khalil (Oliver), Aubrey, Jamal. I looked at the D-line, you've got Antar (Thompson), Akial, Akial started half the season last year, Akial and Antar up there. Sci stepped in and has been a huge, huge problem for a lot of people since he started working out and he looks really good.
"A lot of defenses don't have that kind of experience, that kind of depth."
Junior end Tre Williams was reinstated earlier this week following a suspension that stemmed from a December arrest on suspicion of domestic assault. He pleaded guilty to peace disturbance, a misdemeanor, this summer.
"I've learned that you get all the information, all the facts, and then you make an informed decision," Odom said of Williams' suspension and reinstatement. "Through the process of the last eight months, or however long it's been, went through with the proceedings in court and I feel very strongly about how we handled this case and how we've handled every one that we've had since I've become head coach."
Missouri has depth at virtually every position on its roster, but the quarterback pool was limited this week when the NCAA informed the program TCU transfer Shawn Robinson's eligibility waiver was not granted. He will have two seasons of eligibility starting in 2020.
Odom said Friday that on offense, only wide receiver Johnathon Johnson, Rountree and Bryant were penned in as starters. Robinson has been projected as the program's future starting quarterback once Bryant graduates and exhausts his eligibility this season.
If that is the case, then Missouri, and arguably Robinson, are better-served by the NCAA not granting his immediate eligibility waiver, which will allow him two full seasons to make his mark as a Tiger. Still, the team is relatively inexperienced at quarterback behind Bryant after Micah Wilson transitioned to wide receiver in the spring, with sophomore Taylor Powell listed as the second-string and JuCo transfer Larry Scott Jr. and freshman Connor Bazelak somewhere behind Powell on the depth chart.
"The information we got, we got it yesterday (Thursday) or the day before, that his waiver was denied," Odom said of Robinson. "You don't really get a reason on why. This one was denied, and I know there's a bunch of them in the world of college football right now that for whatever reason got accepted, and then there's some that didn't. We'll live with it and we'll continue to train our guys at that position, try to get them ready to go play, and Shawn will use it and make sure he's a better player when he comes back."
Odom said he would have to consult with Missouri's compliance office, and with Robinson and his family, on whether or not to pursue an appeal. Robinson told reporters he does not plan to appeal the NCAA's decision.
Notes: Odom did not clarify on the injuries to redshirt freshman wide receiver Khmari Thompson (right knee) or freshman defensive back Ishmael Burdine (right shoulder), but said the injury moves, as well as the medical retirements of Jonah Dubinski and Jacob Trump, were to get the team's active roster down to 110 men for the start of camp. Odom said he expects Thompson to rejoin the team before the start of the season, while Burdine will be out for several months.