Big 12: James Laurinaitis
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Sean Weatherspoon stops himself just short of saying that the final results of his last two seasons have been a disappointment.
His Missouri team qualified for two-straight Big 12 championship games, but lost convincingly to Oklahoma in the title game to cap both seasons.
|Brad Schloss/Icon SMI|
|Missouri coaches are very happy top linebacker Sean Weatherspoon is back for his senior season.|
Except maybe Weatherspoon and his teammates, whose cause was boosted when the senior linebacker opted to return after flirting with declaring for the NFL draft.
"When I decided to come back, I did so to help our football team," Weatherspoon said. "We still have a lot of great players, but just didn't put it together the way it should have been. This team has the opportunity to do that and over time, hopefully become a better team."
The Tigers lose offensive standouts like Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin. And their defensive departures will be sizable too, with Stryker Sulak, Ziggy Hood and William Moore among a group of seven starters who won't be back.
But in a balanced North Division without a clear-cut favorite, Weatherspoon thinks the Tigers will be able to confound observers who are already predicting their demise.
"It's great when you are the underdog," Weatherspoon said. "Everybody had said we'd win the North the past two or three years, but we still haven't gotten over the hump yet. With this team, we're going to surprise some people this year."
If they do, Weatherspoon will be a key reason.
He's become the face of the program as his visage adorns ticket promotions and the Tigers' preseason media guide.
But even after a strong finish that featured a 17-tackle effort that earned him the MVP honors in the Tigers' Alamo Bowl victory over Northwestern, Weatherspoon was projected as a third-round draft choice.
That realization was like a cold slap to Weatherspoon and provided some immediate motivation for his senior season.
"As soon as that happened, (Missouri linebackers) coach (Dave) Steckel called me up," Weatherspoon said. "He told me I could go back and show them what I really have by winning the Butkus and proving something to them."
Weatherspoon has returned with a different attitude. He's still the Tigers' most active and vocal leader heading into their Saturday spring game, but also is attacking other areas to help prepare him for the next level.
The most significant area he must improve is in separating himself from offensive linemen. His inability to "shed blockers" in scout speak is the major weakness that keeps him from comparing with potential first-round linebacker picks like Aaron Curry, Clay Matthews and James Laurinaitis.
"I just need to work harder in the weight room and become more diligent in my film study," Weatherspoon said. "I've got to spend more time in the film room and learn tendencies and stuff like that -- just become more of a student of the game."
Steckel, who has since been hired as the Tigers' defensive coordinator, is glad to have Weatherspoon back.
"Sean is a very, very good football player, but he just needs to take care of the little things," Steckel said. "He's intelligent, smart, fast and really knows our defense. Now, he just had to the little intricacies of the position to take him to the next level."
And an inspired Weatherspoon, with the low draft reports as a stimulus, might have a chance to become one of the nation's elite players.
"Knowing Spoon, that will spur him to great things," Steckel said. "Personally, I think he's close to getting to that level anyway. I was the happiest guy in the world when I heard he was coming back."
Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
AUSTIN, Texas -- The bruises and blood-stained uniforms after the first few days of bowl practice have become almost a tradition for Texas as it prepares for its bowl games.
They were on display the last several days as the Longhorns prepare for their Jan. 5 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl matchup with Ohio State.
So much for any feeling of wallowing in self-pity after the Longhorns were snubbed for the Big 12 title game on a controversial tiebreaker. What better way to hammer those feelings away than with a few more extra "Longhorn Drills"?
That practice activity is a staple for developing toughness. It's a three-on-three conditioning drill featuring a back running behind three linemen against three defensive linemen. The claustrophobic nature is emphasized in a tightly contained area set apart by tackling dummies.
"We've been as physical as we've ever been in practice to prepare for this game," Texas coach Mack Brown said. "But at the same time, we've gone one (offensive starter) against one (defensive starter) every day, because we want to match the speed and the physical part of the game. We've lined up and have just been after each other. The impact of the offensive and defensive line working against each other has been incredible."
After a demoralizing loss to Texas A&M last season, Brown ratcheted up intensity in his Holiday Bowl practices by putting his team through an excruciating run of workouts. The hard work paid off with an impressive 52-34 victory over Arizona State punctuated by four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
This season, the Longhorns are nursing a deeper wound after failing to make the Big 12 championship game -- and ultimately a potential shot at the national championship -- only after a controversial three-way tie for the South Division championship was settled by the BCS standings. Oklahoma claimed the Big 12 South title despite Texas' 45-35 victory over the Sooners on Oct. 11.
Those feelings lingered for a couple of days as the Longhorns moped about their near-miss. But after returning to practice, the return to intense practices has quickly caught their attention.
"I think we've got our mojo back," Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo said. "Everybody is upbeat and very excited about this bowl game. We haven't been in a BCS bowl for a while, so it's a true accomplishment for this season."
The return to physical practices is particularly important against Ohio State, who Brown believes will provide a challenge to the Longhorns in the trenches. Ohio State ranks 28th nationally in rush offense and features a punishing ground attack keyed by a huge offensive line and 237-pound tailback Chris "Beanie" Wells.
"They are huge. Their offensive line is about 300 pounds a man," Brown said. "Beanie Wells is by far the best back that we'll see this year. It's not even close for anybody else or in the same ballpark.
"And then you take (Ohio State quarterback) Terrelle Pryor. We all know how good he is. We recruited him. He's Vince Young, except may be thicker. He can run and throw. They are a physical football team."
On defense, the Buckeyes have standouts like linebacker James Laurinaitis and cornerback Malcolm Jenkins who both remember coming into Austin and snapping the Longhorns' 21-game winning streak early in the 2006 season.
"Coach Brown has really emphasized being physical and hitting each other a lot this year," guard Cedric Dockery said. "He wants that carryover to be in the bowl game. He wants us to be ready for what we're going to see with Ohio State."
And considering Texas' recent success in bowl games, it's hard to argue with the results. Texas, along with Boston College and Utah, are the only teams to have won consecutive bowl games in each of the last four seasons.
So the Longhorns are expecting more of the same intense hitting until they break for Christmas on Tuesday.
"He does that for us to get ready to play in the bowl games," Dockery said. "It's been good for him before, so I don't think he'll turn away from it this year."