July 17, 2008

Daniel hopes to lead Tigers to the top

COLUMBIA, Mo. This is where it all is happening. It's right here, right now for Missouri.

No cameras. No gyrating cheerleaders. No band dorks. No fan-boys. No coaches. No nothing inside Memorial Stadium.

It's just a couple of coolers of water and bunch of sweaty players in shorts. Shirts are optional. Hey, it's muggy on a feels-like-rain Thursday in July.

Chase Daniel is one of those with his shirt off, but Daniel could wear anything he wanted. He owns Missouri. This is his state, his city, his team. This also could be his year. Missouri sits on the precipice of something special, a season for the ages, a might-be/could-be campaign that has a national championship look and feel to it. Getting there starts now.

There's Daniel, with a towel tucked in his black shorts, gathering the quarterbacks and receivers for a quick briefing on what today's workout will include. Daniel is one of the smallest guys out there. Your program says he's 6 feet tall, but he's more like 5-10-and-change in cleats. The best way to describe his body? Bulky, bordering on squatty. Daniel is the poster child for "looks can be deceiving."

There's Daniel, taking that familiar shotgun snap we've seen so often on glorious Saturday afternoons in Columbia the past two seasons. He glances to his right, pump fakes and arches a strike to streaking Jeremy Maclin. Touchdown!

There's Daniel, holding a play card as he watches the second-team offense work. He looks like a coach. He acts like a coach. Daniel doesn't like what he sees and shakes his head. He scurries to a receiver and tells him how the route should have been run. Coach Gary Pinkel would be proud if he were here.

There's Daniel, walking off the field at the end of practice, a smile creasing his face. Ever notice he seemingly always has a 5 o'clock shadow? Is the guy ever clean-shaven? Ah, heck does it really matter? He's Chase Daniel, one of the biggest stars in the 2008 college football galaxy.

No shirt, no shave, no problem.

"This is fun," he says. "Being out here is when you learn, it's when you grow. We have big goals for this fall. We want to win it all."

Daniel wipes his face with a towel, chugs some water and looks around. He notices the names of past Missouri greats affixed to a low-brick wall that edges both sides of the field. The names of Tigers icons such as Johnny Roland, Kellen Winslow, Dan Devine and Don Faurot, among others, hang in homage.

Daniel's name will be there one day. No current player means as much to his program as Daniel. And no player has taken his team as far in the past three-plus years. You see, Daniel has done what many felt was impossible: He has made Missouri a nationally relevant program.

Some still have a difficult time getting their head around that notion. Twenty years ago, Missouri meant "Misery." The program was a punching bag, a punch line for tailgaters in Lincoln, Boulder and elsewhere in the Midwest.

"Restore the Roar"? It was more like "Ignore the Meek Meow."

You want dubious? There was the "fifth-down" game vs. Colorado in 1990, and the "Flea-kicker" game vs. Nebraska in 1997. And many Missouri fans still can't bury the memories of myriad Saturday clubbings.

The low point was from 1985-88, when fans were urged to "hitch a ride on Woody's wagon." Bad idea. It was an unmitigated disaster as Woody Widenhofer-led teams went 12-31-1. It was under his watch that Missouri suffered the darkest day in its football history: On Nov. 8, 1986, the Tigers traveled to Oklahoma and endured a 77-0 beatdown. The game forever is known as the "Norman Conquest."

Daniel waves his hand and doesn't want to hear it. That was yesterday. Today is great. Tomorrow looks even better because of a quarterback from Texas who is equal parts mojo, moxie and matinee star.

"I knew he was special from the first time he came out during two-a-days as a freshman," offensive coordinator Dave Christensen says. "He just had something about him that set him apart."

It didn't take Christensen long to realize he needed an offense to accentuate his young gunslinger's talents. Enter the hurry-up, spread offense. It was a stroke of genius by Christensen. Daniel played in 10 games as a true freshman in 2005. Everyone received a glimpse of future greatness when Daniel entered a game against Iowa State with less than nine minutes remaining and Missouri trailing 24-14. Facing a third-and-10 from the Tigers' 25, Daniel connected on a first-down pass and proceeded to lead his team to a field goal. After a defensive stop, Daniel followed with a game-tying touchdown pass with 20 seconds remaining. He capped the comeback by engineering a drive to a game-winning field goal in overtime.

Chase Daniel either already holds or will likely hold most every Missouri passing record. A look at Daniel's career numbers so far:
Year Comp.-Att. Yds. TD INT Rush Yds. Rush TD.
2005 38-66 347 1 2 58 1
2006 287-452 3527 28 10 379 4
2007 384-563 4306 33 11 253 4
TOTALS 709-1081 8180 62 23 690 9
A legend was launched.

Pick a passing record, and Daniel probably holds it at Missouri. A few more figure to fall in 2008. He needs 620 passing yards to eclipse Brad Smith's career total of 8,799. And Daniel is closing in on Smith's Big 12-record 13,088 career total yards; he needs 4,220 yards. But more than anything, Daniel has made Missouri a winner.

Is Daniel an NFL quarterback? Maybe, maybe not. "They get the field all spread out for him to give him good passing lanes," an NFL scout says. "He could be a fit for some teams in the right offense. But he has stuff to develop still."

But who cares about the NFL? Daniel is having too much fun saving a program. He's the toast of Columbia's famed Broadway Boulevard. Just think if he had signed with Texas coming out of Carroll High in Southlake, Texas. Daniel had the credentials of most Longhorns recruits, but he just wasn't big enough. Mizzou received an early commitment from him, and Daniel stuck with it even after Texas made a late push for him when Ryan Perrilloux reneged and committed to LSU.

"This guy is special," Pinkel says. "What a remarkable competitor. I just have to say he's a great player."

En route to forging a 20-7 mark as a starter, Daniel has led Missouri to consecutive bowls. Last season's trip to the Cotton Bowl was the school's first New Year's Day date since the 1969 season. And Daniel has Missouri poised to play in a third consecutive bowl, which hasn't happened in these parts since a four-year run from 1978-81. There hasn't been this much promise or excitement surrounding a Missouri season since Dan Devine strolled the sideline from 1958-70.

"Oh, yeah," Daniel says. "It's exciting. I'm a big college football fan. I have been checking out the magazines. Who do I think should be No. 1? Missouri."

Daniel had the Tigers oh-so-close last season. After No. 4 Missouri dumped No. 2 Kansas 36-28 in the regular-season finale in Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., the Tigers ascended to No. 1 in the polls for the first time since 1960. The only thing between the Tigers and an improbable trip to the BCS title game was the Big 12 Championship Game against Oklahoma. Mizzou lost.

A 38-7 victory over a disinterested Arkansas team in the Cotton Bowl wrapped up a glorious 12-2 season, but a hunger pang persists. It's all about advancing a program that last season won its first Big 12 North title and got its first New Year's Day bowl victory since a Sugar Bowl triumph over Florida after the 1965 season.

For that, Daniel was showered with accolades. He finished fourth in Heisman voting, the highest for a Missouri player since Paul Christman finished third in 1939. Daniel also was the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year after throwing for 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns. A cherry on top this summer was the Big 12 Male Athlete of the Year Award.

That brings us here, to the long, hot summer of 2008. What could Daniel possibly have left to work on? There are three things.

Improve his footwork

Hone his accuracy

Harness his deep pass

"I can get better throwing deep and improve my accuracy with repetition, doing stuff like this seven-on-seven work," Daniel said. "I am trying to improve my footwork by working with a Bosu Ball. It's difficult. I stand on it, trying to keep my balance. It works on strengthening your feet and ankles, too."

The Missouri players gather quickly on one end of the field to end their brisk, one-hour session. Before Daniel climbs behind the wheel of his jet-black Lincoln Mark LT with oversized chrome rims (a gift from his dad for winning the Big 12 North), he has a phone interview. Blaine Gabbert sits and waits in Daniel's vehicle, parked just feet from the field in the north end zone, toweling off while Daniel sits on the edge of the field and yammers into a cell phone.

Gabbert doesn't mind. He wants to soak it all in. He wants to be Daniel. The throne awaits Gabbert, Rivals.com's No. 1 pro-style quarterback recruit in the nation in 2008. He decommitted from Nebraska after the Huskers had a coaching change, and the St. Louis-area product then chose Missouri. What quarterback wouldn't want to play in this offense? What quarterback wouldn't want to learn at the feet of Daniel?

"We are living together this summer," Daniel says. "I am trying to teach him all that I know. He's a good kid. We also have been hanging out. He has taken me to his home in St. Louis. We also have been on some float trips."

Daniel revs up his Mark LT. He slowly pulls out, honks and is off down Stadium Boulevard. It's time to relax a bit, then it's back to watching film. There's more work to do.

A championship beckons.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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