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January 2, 2008

Gabbert hopes to bounce back on big stage

SAN ANTONIO - Players come to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, wanting to show out for a number of different reasons. But Ballwin (Mo.) Parkway West five-star quarterback Blaine Gabbert's reason is a simple one.

He wants redemption after a lackluster senior season that left people asking whether or not the 6-foot-4, 226-pounder was worthy of the lofty five-star ranking he earned after blowing up at the EA Sports Elite 11 Quarterback Camp.

Gabbert's horrible senior season was sabotaged before it even started with an injury in pre-season practices. Things then snowballed with another injury, and he finished the season with only 623 yards passing, five touchdowns and an additional 218 yards rushing. Those numbers were a fraction of he did in 2006, when he threw for 1,523 yards and almost an additional 500 yards on the ground.

"I got turf toe and a high foot sprain in my first jamboree, which kind of dinged me up the entire year," Gabbert said. "The turf toe is still kind of bothering me now. That just takes time to heal. That just hampered my ability to elude the rush and my mobility in general. That took away some of the things I was kind of almost dependant on.

"Then I dislocated my shoulder in the fourth game of the year and that was the end of it."

For most players it would be.

But Gabbert gets another chance to show why he's one of the top quarterbacks and top players in the nation in the All-American Bowl, which is set for a noon Central kickoff and broadcast on NBC. He's looked good through the first two days of practices and is competing hard with Dayne Crist and Andrew Luck for the starting spot on the West squad.

"I just really want to have fun and stay loose," Gabbert said. "You can't be tense and tight or try to force things because you won't be productive. I know I really want to come out there and show everybody that I am what I am, and really end my senior year on a high note, but I want to have fun and enjoy it. I'm never going to go through this again. Only 84 people in the country a year get to do it.

"But it would be pretty sweet to go out there and have a big game."

If you could design a perfect offense that would showcase Gabbert's tools, then the West's would be it.

The signal caller will be in charge of spreading the ball around to an array of receivers and the ground game both from the quarterback and running back will be key to its success. Those are the exact things that Gabbert excels at. Blessed with one of the strongest arms in the nation and the ability to hurt you with his 4.5-second speed, Gabbert said he already feels at home with the system after four practices.

"It's been a blast," Gabbert said. "It's a sweet offense. We got it installed, all the formations, all the plays. It was fun learning a new offense, seeing how far you can push yourself in the mental aspect of the game. But going out there and throwing to such high level receivers, having 300 pound guys blocking for you and even going against all the D-backs and linebackers is fun. It's amazing all the insane speed these guys have. It really pushes you to be your best."

For the longest time it appeared he would be taking his best to Lincoln, Neb., to play for the Cornhuskers. But when things started to turn south for Bill Callahan, Gabbert decided to break his commitment.

As the highest ranked player to come out of Missouri, Gabbert was at the center of one of the biggest stories of the year in recruiting. Would he stick with the Big Red? Would he switch to Missouri? Would somebody sneak in from out of left field and get him? Would he re-consider the Huskers with a new coach in place?

"It was just crazy," Gabbert said. "It was hectic at times - actually all of the time. With the uncertainty at Nebraska, I had to look elsewhere. In the end, you have to do what's best for you."

He ended up selecting Missouri, a decision he said he probably should have made the first time around.

"Missouri was in the back of my mind all the time," he said. "I loved the coaching staff. I loved the offense. I loved the players. And then it's my home-state school. And now I couldn't see myself going anywhere else.

"It was a so stressful at times. You try not to let it get you, but it does. Being the quarterback, you're the face of football basically. You can either run with that and do good, or you can let it eat you up. At times it became a big distraction. People would talk to you wherever you go, just saying 'hi' and 'go to this school.' We'd go out to eat and it'd be like 'there's Blaine Gabbert. Are you going to Missouri? Where are you going?'"

Gabbert said one thing that kept him centered throughout the craziness were his parents.

"Really they were extremely supportive, and they wanted me to go wherever I wanted to go," he said. "If that would have been Alabama, Nebraska, Missouri or wherever, they just wanted the best for me. But in the end, I knew Mizzou was the place for me. It was probably the place for me in the first place, but it took me a while to realize that.

"All along, my mom wanted me to go to Missouri, so she could watch me be close to home. It's an 1 hour, 20 minutes away, so I could go home for dinner one night and then be back to school."

When the time came to make the final decision, Gabbert said he had some fun with his future head coach.

"I had been up there for like three weeks straight," he said. "After the A&M game, we went back into the football offices and talked things over. I told coach (Gary) Pinkel, 'coach I'm going to KU. I want to be a Jayhawk.' He was like 'oh, that's nice.' He just nodded with a big smile. So I tried to play a joke on him. Coach (David) Yost already knew. So I had to play a joke on coach Pinkel.

"Blaine Gabbert, the Jayhawk. That doesn't have a good ring at all."

Gabbert said it was tough telling Callahan he wasn't coming, but he knew it was the best thing for him to do.

"I have not talked to him since he was let go," he said. "It was definitely a hard choice. It was the toughest I had to make so far, but they'll be harder ones. I'm just glad where I'm at."

Where he'll be at next fall will be in Columbia, Mo., working with Heisman finalist Chase Daniel. Gabbert couldn't be more excited to learn from Daniel, and he has already built a great relationship with him.

"I met Chase and started to become friends with him at the Elite 11 when I was already committed to Nebraska," he said. "I had a good time throwing the ball around with him. He would check in with me during the season to just say 'hi.' Then when I de-committed from Nebraska and started going up to Missouri all the time, I stayed with him a lot and started to build a great relationship with him.

"We text and call each other all the time. He'll be like my mentor next year. He'll keep me under his wing and teach me the offense. It's going to be fun to learn from him. It's a great offense. It's the perfect offense for quarterbacks, and I feel like it's the perfect offense for me."

But before Gabbert gets to Mizzou, he's out to show the entire nation on Saturday that what people saw at the Elite 11 and so far through practices this week is the real Blaine Gabbert.

"Things just never got on track this year for me," he said. "But that's not what I want people to remember about my senior season. I want to leave them with a good impression and that's hopefully what I'll do on Saturday."

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