I had a chance to talk to Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden about his career at Missouri, his attitude towards the draft, his preparation and doubters, as well as his work in the community.
Peter Smith: You grew up near Austin, TX and had a lot of scholarship offers and Texas hates to let their players get out of the state, so how did you end up at Missouri?
Zaviar Gooden: It came down to Missouri, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State; I just felt the most comfortable in Mizzou. I felt they were the most honest with me. I had a good chance at playing early, so I went there. Plus, Missouri was doing pretty well at the time, just coming off a Cotton Bowl victory and a 12-2 season. It’s a good program, so I went with them.
PS: You went to Missouri but you are from Austin and you did get to play the University of Texas twice, once as a freshman and once as a junior. What did the win your junior year mean to you?
ZG: It meant a lot, man. I don’t have anything against Texas. Some guys are bitter that, you know, “Texas didn’t want me so I’m gonna go and beat em” and I’m not gonna lie, I did have that a little in my mind because they told me I wasn’t good enough in a way. I didn’t have anything against them, but it was just good enough to beat the guys that told me I wasn’t good enough to play with them. It was fun. Plus, I know a lot of players that play for them and to get to come home with bragging rights was real cool, so I was happy about that.
PS: Talk about your Senior year compared to the rest of your career. It was the only season where you missed any games and it was the least successful in terms of wins.
ZG: It was probably the roughest season I’ve ever been through since I’ve been playing ball. This is the first year not making a bowl game. I went into the season planning big things and then boom, second game of the year, I get hurt. I never missed a game in my career, not in middle school, not in high school, and not in the previous three years I’ve been in college. Then my senior year of all years out of all years, missing games. I wanted to be out there with my guys and that hurt. Just the fact that we weren’t playing how I know we could have played; we were a lot better team than what we put on the field. A lot of people is gonna say it’s because went to the SEC and couldn’t hang with those guys. Honestly, it was really us; we just weren’t playing good football to be honest with you. I felt like we were a better team last year than in 2010. It was pretty stressful being a captain and having the team not perform how you want.
PS: You got to play in the SEC this year, the Big XII the last three. How are those two conferences different?
ZG: They’re both really good conferences. I felt like the Big XII was who could outscore who and the SEC was who could stop who; who had the better defense. The Big XII, you see a lot of games, 48-45, and the SEC, you’re gonna see games, 10-7, stuff like that. The SEC’s strength is the defense and in particular, the defensive line. They have a lot of good defensive backs as well. Up front, it is the most physical conference by far. Playing linebacker, I got to see more NFL type stuff and actually be in the box, playing true linebacker. In the Big XII, it was spread, so most of the time; I wasn’t even in the box. I was spaced out or spread and I had to do a lot more coverage type stuff. It was different. It was fun playing in both. I’m glad I got to play in both.
PS: Does the fact that you played so many different teams, so many different schemes and players give you an advantage going forward?
ZG: I think it does, because I’ve seen the best of the best. I’ve seen plenty of 1st round receivers, plenty of the country’s top running backs and quarterbacks. The last two Heisman winning quarterbacks I’ve played against. Yea, I think it does because some NFL teams are going to that spread type stuff, the pistol, and all the read option type stuff, so I’m familiar with playing against that and how to stop that. And also playing against smash mouth teams that some NFL teams will do as well, so I feel like I’m pretty well rounded as opposed to some people who probably only got one side of it, mostly.
PS: How would you describe your game to someone?
ZG: I just like to fly around and make plays. If you put on the film and I didn’t make the tackle, I was right there by the tackle pretty much every time. That’s the way I like to play, real fast, real quick, get to the ball carrier. I like to say I’m like a DB that’s physical enough to play linebacker pretty much. I can run and cover like a DB and big enough and strong enough to play in the box. I like playing in the run game too.
PS: What do you think when someone describes you as a ‘coverage linebacker’?
ZG: A lot of times that label gets placed on me just because they know I’m probably the fastest linebacker and the quickest linebacker and all that type of stuff and also because I played in the Big XII most of my career. I went down to the Senior Bowl and showed them that I can be physical and that I stop the run as well. Of course at the next level, I’m going to continue putting that way. I’m going to make them know me as a run stopper and a coverage linebacker. I’m going to be the full package; I’m going to get rid of that label.
PS: I couldn’t help notice you said you were the fastest and the quickest linebacker. A point of pride for you as you go to the next level?
ZG: Yea, I mean I’m not trying to be arrogant or anything. At the combine, I ran the fastest time in the short shuttle, 3-cone, and 60-yard shuttle. That’s agility and quickness, so anything to do with running, I was the best person there. I gotta be considered the fastest and the quickest.
PS: You mentioned physical play; the best game I saw you play this year was against Georgia. How do you feel about that?
ZG: I was feeling good and I was excited; first SEC game. I think I had 9 tackles at half time or something like that. That was a pretty good game. But yea, you can ask plenty of my teammates and coaches and they know that I’m a physical player and people know that I’ll bang. I’m not afraid to bang at any point, I never shy away from contact. I don’t really worry about it; I’ll prove it in the league.
PS: What was your attitude when you did go to the Senior Bowl? What did you want to prove down there?
ZG: Basically, I just wanted to show what I can really do. Going down there, they was talking up a lot of other guys. Nobody was really talking about me, which is fine with me; I don’t really care about none of that. I just wanted to show and prove to the scouts and coaches what I could do and why I deserved to be on that field; that I am physical. That’s what I went down there and had on my mind and felt like I wanted to accomplish.
PS: How good did that interception feel?
ZG: (laugh) I mean It felt good. Anytime you making plays, it feels good; especially turnovers. That’s a key for the defense and definitely makes you stand out in front of the coaches and scouts. It felt real good, but honestly, I was just playing my game, just having fun. It was real good for me.
PS: More meaningful number for you: 20 tackles for loss or 5 interceptions?
ZG: I’d say the interceptions, because anytime you get a turnover, that’s big. That changes football games. It gives our offense another opportunity to score. Anytime if it’s a fumble recovery or a forced fumble or an interception, I’ll take that over anything.
PS: And speaking of coverage, what makes you effective in coverage?
ZG: I’ve got good hips and real good fit. I used to play DB; I went to Mizzou playing safety, so coverage is not something I’m foreign to. I can line up against receivers, tight ends, running backs, whatever and I feel very comfortable doing it. I feel like I’m just a great cover.
PS: Do you feel like people are underestimating you?
ZG: I’m not really sure. I really don’t read too much stuff that’s out there. You know, at the end of the day, whether you go the first round, whether you go undrafted, once you get to the team, you’re gonna have to make the team and prove yourself when you get to that team. No matter where I go, I just want the opportunity and I’m just looking to prove myself. Say you do go first round and everyone is praising you right now; you never do anything, then what does that mean? They’re just gonna talk about you were a bust. It’s really what you do when you get in the league. All this stuff in college, it’s over. In a way, I don’t care about that anymore. I’m just looking forward to the future. I’m working hard every single day, making sure when I show up to camp, I’m ready and I’m gonna make noise in the league.
PS: Are you a 4-3 Weak Side Linebacker or a 3-4 Inside Linebacker?
ZG: I’m whatever you want me to be. Whoever drafts me or wherever you want to put me, I’m gonna be successful at that spot, I guarantee you.
PS: Where have you been told you’re going to go in the draft?
ZG: My agent, he just told that I’ve done some really good stuff to help myself out, but he hasn’t told me anything about where I’ll go. And like I said, I don’t really listen to a bunch of stuff because a lot of people say some guys are projected this and that and then they never go there. I’ll believe it whenever I see it on the 25th, 26th, or 27th, so that’s really just what I’m waiting on.
PS: How do you stay so focused and keep everything out?
ZG: I just worry about what I can control. I can’t control where I get drafted. I can’t control what people are saying about me. What I can control is working on my fundamentals and technique and getting better. That’s what I’m going to control and I’m going to do that as much as possible, so I can be as successful as possible. When I get to the league, I don’t want to be average. I don’t want to spend years just playing on special teams and get a check. I want to go there and be great, so that’s what I’m focused on. All the other stuff doesn’t matter to me. All the ESPN people talking about you on TV and all that other stuff.
PS: What are we going to be saying about Zaviar Gooden in 9 months?
ZG: Hopefully, one of the top rookies had one of the best rookie seasons in the NFL. I’m shooting to have a great season and to start for an NFL team and make a lot of plays. Hopefully, you’ll be talking about me as one of the best rookies to perform in the 2013 season.
PS: What do you think of your teammate Sheldon Richardson?
ZG: Oh man, Sheldon, he’s a beast. He’s big a guy but he can run and he’s quick. He’s a playmaker pretty much. He just makes big plays consistently, pretty much every game you look at he’s making a big play. He loves football. That’s all he cares about. His whole life is just on football and he’s good at it, so why not? Sheldon, he’s going to be great at the next level. He’s one of my closest friends and he’s just a great player.
PS: What do you take away from Coach (Gary) Pinkle?
ZG: He instills a lot of discipline. That and handling adversity, he’s helped me learn a few lessons with that. He always say life is 90% of how do you choose to deal with things and 10% what happens to you. Just staying positive all the time, having a good attitude and being disciplined in every area of your life; he made sure we were in study hall, made sure we didn’t leave it early. He made sure we were making the grades and in class all the time. He made sure we worked hard all through the summer, 6am workouts all through the summer. Just practice in general; he instilled a lot of discipline in us and I learned a lot about him from that aspect.
PS: Tell me about an assistant or high school coach that helped you through your career.
ZG: I would have to say Coach (Pat) Ivey, the strength coach at Mizzou. He pretty much transformed me, not just physically but also mentally. He’s great at what he does and he’s one of the best. He helped me a lot when I was at Mizzou.
PS: Tell me about your volunteer work and how active you are in the community. Do you want to carry that into the NFL?
ZG: Yea, definitely. I was real heavy in the FCA, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, speaking at middle schools, high schools, and just different events like that. I definitely want to do something for the youth when I get to the NFL, help the youth out, help them stay out of trouble. Teach them, for people aspiring to get to college and play Division I or just play football anywhere, I’d like to help them out about the process; help them stay on the track with getting their grades right, so they can get to the next level and stay out of trouble. There were a lot of cats where I’m from; they had more than enough talent to get there. They were either doing something off the field they shouldn’t have been doing or just wasn’t doing what they should have been doing in the classroom. I just want to help people out like that. Also, I have been planning a missionary trip to Africa with a guy I that used to go to school with as well. I want to spend some time over and basically just give back to them and just help them out in any way I can.
PS: Where in Africa?
PS: Speaking of education, you are a business management major. What do you want to do with that?
ZG: I want my own business someday, so I had to learn how to manage it.
Zaviar Gooden is an extremely focused person, both on and off the field, and seems to really know what he wants to do with his life and with football.