Gabbert's quick start powers Missouri's 4-0 start

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Coming into the season, the Big 12’s cast of returning quarterbacks matched any in the nation.

With Heisman winner Sam Bradford and Heisman runner-up Colt McCoy back, along with Todd Reesing, Zac Robinson and Robert Griffin, the conference had a stellar collection.

But after the first month of the season, the quarterback that has played the best in the conference wasn’t among that group. In fact, he hadn’t even made his first collegiate start until earlier this season.

Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert has been the key player in the Tigers’ 4-0 start, leading the conference in pass efficiency as he’s thrown for 11 touchdowns with no interceptions.

“I really never thought it wouldn’t be like this,” Gabbert said. “We haven’t done anything that I didn’t expect we would be able to do. All of us worked hard and prepared to get ready for the season. What we’ve done is a result of all of that.”

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is just as enthralled with Gabbert’s mental makeup as he is with his prototypical 6-foot-5, 240-pound stature, his loping 4.51 speed in the 40-yard dash and his big passing arm that has NFL scouts drooling.

“One important thing for quarterbacks is to stay in a place where you can function, where you don't get caught up in the hype or the negative of what's going on and you kind of stay in the zone. Whether you get sacked, or throw a touchdown or an interception, you come right back in this zone,” Pinkel said. “I've been impressed with him, he's doing a good job of staying in that area.”

Gabbert will get a chance to renew his acquaintance with his old friends at Nebraska -- a school he almost attended -- when he visits Faurot Field Thursday night in a huge early North Division showdown.

“I’m looking forward to playing them like all of my games,” Gabbert said. “But the fact it’s Nebraska doesn’t make it any bigger or more important for me.”

The commitment with the Cornhuskers came after Gabbert’s family had forged a close relationship with former Nebraska coach Bill Callahan. But several weeks before Callahan was fired, Gabbert reneged on his commitment and instead picked Missouri.

In the process he became the first five-star quarterback to choose Missouri, bringing Pinkel’s staff a playmaker to build a program around.

“I made my original commitment about what I thought was right for me,” Gabbert said. “After I decided to come to Missouri, I never had any second thoughts or focused on that. We’re focusing on the present.”

It’s easy to understand why after Gabbert’s scintillating debut.

In his first college start, Gabbert completed 25 of 33 passes for 319 yards, three passing touchdowns and another rushing TD to key the Tigers’ 37-9 upset victory over Illinois in the season opener. That start had pundits tripping over themselves, comparing him to John Elway and Ben Roethlisberger after his first college game.

He built on that in his most recent game, a 31-21 win over Nevada. Gabbert threw for a career-best 414 yards, on 25-of-40 passing, with three more touchdowns.

The Gabbert family still has an association with Bo Pelini and his staff at Nebraska. His younger brother, Tyler, is currently a Cornhusker commitment.

But Blaine Gabbert has caught Pelini's attention during his preparation for Thursday’s game.

“He was recruited highly because he's a good player," Pelini said. "We have a lot of respect for him and their offense. He's a good player. And it's like anything else. If he plays good or doesn't play good it doesn't change anything.

"If he has a good game or he's mediocre or however people perceive him to be, this is only his fifth start too. It's not going to change it. Regardless of what happens, he's still a good player. And Blaine is just going to keep getting better with the more experience he gets."

Gabbert’s abilities have transformed the Missouri offense, according to his teammates. His deep passing touch -- his arm has a range up to 79 yards -- has provided this Missouri team with a noticeable vertical element.

“Just by him coming out and playing like he’s done has helped us,” wide receiver Danario Alexander said. “Obviously, we had a lot of success when Chase [Daniel] was our quarterback. But now, we are a totally different team.

“Blaine is a bigger, more physical player. He can run the ball and stretch the field. Chase is a great quarterback and helped us do a lot of stuff when he was here. But having Blaine as our quarterback has really opened our playbook up.”

Alexander said that Gabbert’s performance wasn’t a question for his teammates. As such, his quick start hasn’t been a surprise.

“Everybody was looking to see what kind of quarterback he would be for us,” Alexander said. “It’s pretty simple. He’s played well for us.”