In December 1993, Missouri football was about as inviting to
high school recruits as gout, but new coach Larry Smith still
secured a visit to the Webb City, Mo., home of Grant Wistrom,
then the most coveted young athlete in the state and later a
two-time All-America defensive end at Nebraska. "Grant was the
type of player you could rebuild a program around," Smith
recalls. "Naturally, I was excited about the prospect of meeting
him. But the morning I was supposed to go down to see him, he
called to cancel. But, hey, that was Missouri football back
then. You considered yourself lucky just to get into a kid's
Smith chuckles at the memory, only because he can. His team is
fresh off its first winning season in 14 years, and, more
significantly, no longer does national signing day in the Show
Me State resemble a scene from Independence Day. This year's
freshman class includes offensive lineman Justin Bland, the
state's top high school lineman last year, and defensive end
Justin Smith, another Missouri native, whom upperclassmen raved
about during summer workouts. Both will play extensively this
season. "There's a lot of high school talent here," Smith says.
"To be a winning program, keeping players in state has to be our
That's the same blueprint Smith followed at Tulane and Arizona,
where he forged his reputation as the game's Bob Vila by building
decrepit programs into bowl teams. Though Missouri is still in
need of a few finishing touches (a fullback, a couple of
receivers, another defensive lineman or two), the foundation has
been laid. "Who can predict the future?" says quarterback Corby
Jones, who played his high school ball less than five miles from
Faurot Field. "I do know we've put expectations back into the
program, which is a start."
Jones, a tough and charismatic senior, carries the heaviest
expectations of any Tiger. Last season he accounted for more
than 55% of Missouri's offense and was selected first-team
All-Big 12, beating out Michael Bishop of Kansas State and Scott
Frost of Nebraska. This year he is on everyone's list of Heisman
Trophy candidates. "When you talk about quarterbacks, you talk
about their physical attributes," says Colorado coach Rick
Neuheisel, who helped develop Troy Aikman and Kordell Stewart,
among others. "Jones is as powerful as a running back, but his
biggest attribute is that he's a great leader. The Missouri kids
rally around him."
The Tigers will rally around him even more this season, since
Jones's father, Curtis, a 10-year assistant with the Tigers, died
of a heart attack on July 26. "I know what he'd want me to do,"
says Corby. "And I know what he'd want us to do as a team."
Jones will direct an offense that boasts depth on the line but
is thin at fullback and wide receiver, where three walk-ons
could see significant action. The Tigers don't plan to shy away
from passing, though. "The key to the last five games last
season [of which Missouri won four] was that Corby was very
effective as a passer," Smith says. "We want to see the
continued development of our passing game, with us throwing more
to the tight ends and to guys out of the backfield."
An undersized defense, which coughed up 30.2 points (84th in the
country) and 386.5 yards a game last season, is cause for
concern. So is the schedule. Four of Missouri's five toughest
games this season--Ohio State, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Texas
Tech--will be on the road. As for the longer-term schedule for
joining the Big 12's elite, the Tigers aren't in the living room
yet, but they are on the doorstep.
COLOR PHOTO: ALLEN KEE/BRSP Homegrown Jones is a prime example of the in-state talent leading the Missouri revival. [Corby Jones in game]
1997 record: 7-5 (5-3, 3rd in Big 12 North)
Final ranking: No. 23 AP, No. 23 coaches' poll
1997 Averages OFFENSE DEFENSE
Scoring 33.5 30.2
Rushing Yards 263.5 193.7
Passing Yards 156.6 192.8
Total Yards 420.2 386.5
Quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Corby Jones has the
potential to become only the 11th player in NCAA history to both
rush and throw for more than 1,000 yards in a season.... Wide
receiver Kent Layman should improve on his 21-reception,
534-yard totals of last year.... The move of small but speedy
Marquis Gibson from defensive end to outside linebacker should
improve the pass rush.
Schedule strength: 52nd of 112
Oct. 24 at Nebraska The Tigers have not forgotten last year's
near upset. Neither have the Huskers.
Nov. 21 vs. Kansas State Best bet for a statement-making upset.
The Wildcats will be coming off a game against Nebraska.
The Bottom Line
A quarterback with the smarts, charisma and talent of Jones can
be good for three or four extra wins; look for the Tigers to