COLUMBIA - As the Missouri football team prepared for practice Tuesday, the empty bleachers of Faurot Field echoed the speaker-blasted sounds of iLoveMakonnen and Drake's "Tuesday," a song about having fun on a weekday after working through the weekend. The Tigers' Tuesday was just the opposite.
The team returned to the field Tuesday after enjoying a week off for spring break.
"It's always a caution practice, because guys have been out the last 10, 11, 12 days off," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "... We only have another 10 practices left. Nine now. And when that (ends), we don't coach our guys again until September. I mean, other sports have an opportunity to coach them all the time, and we don't have that opportunity, so we can't waste a day."
Perhaps a bit more appropriate was Mase's "Welcome Back," which kicked off the practice. Pinkel was happy with his team's return.
"I thought overall we had a good practice," he said. "I talked to seniors before break about when you get back before this day, I need your leadership along with the coaches' to make sure our team does the right things to get better and have a great practice."
Though the school year has not yet ended, the team's juniors of last season are undergoing the metamorphosis of becoming seniors and establishing themselves as the team's leaders.
"It's kind of also a fun time to see your juniors, which are our seniors now, in our leadership meetings ... and just to see the chemistry of the team change," Pinkel said. "A bunch of these guys led in their own way as juniors, and now that they're seniors, who's kind of going to run the team and who's going to have the biggest voice on the team?"
Tailback Russell Hansbrough highlighted fellow seniors center Evan Boehm and safety Ian Simon as two of the team's more vocal leaders.
"They've just stepped into the roles and make a big progress from there," Hansbrough said.
The Tigers have plenty of turnover at the receiver position. Last year, quarterback Maty Mauk's targets were almost exclusively seniors.
Sophomores Nate Brown and J'Mon Moore, junior Eric Laurent and senior Wesley Leftwich look to fill the void left by Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White. Boehm is confident in what he has seen from the receivers.
"I have no doubt," he said. "At the end of practice we just saw J'Mon and Eric and a couple other guys just catching the balls, getting it to the end zone, and that's the first time I really saw our passing game kind of come alive, because I'm not down there during 7-on-7 (drills) and 1-on-1 and stuff. But as an offensive lineman, giving Maty the time and giving the wide receivers the time, that's really cool to see. We're excited, because we've gotten better since even last Thursday during the scrimmage."
Pinkel knows there is plenty of work to be done at that position, and though spring practices end in April, the work sure won't.
"It's working and working and working, that's all it is," he said. "It's a continuous effort of getting better. Especially the quarterbacks and receivers, just throwing all summer long. You've never got it. You see veterans in the NFL, they're All-Pro, and they're working out just like they were rookies, because it's just timing. It's working together. The good news is with a great work ethic, you've got a great chance to improve, and that's what we're looking for."
Following the graduation of Christian Brinser, the Tigers are looking for a punter.
"We've got some people coming in, so we'll see where that goes, and obviously that's something that's a circle," Pinkel said. "Some years you have (a clear candidate for punter), and some years you don't. That's an area that we've obviously got to solve by the end of August, and we'll see where it goes."
Kicker Andrew Baggett, who was the team's backup punter last season, is competing for the job, as are walk-on candidates.
"I just think you have to be mature enough to separate the two and being able to focus on all the details of each one," Pinkel said of Baggett holding two special teams roles.