Mizzou’s O-Line Readies for SEC
By Matt Smith
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The Tigers have a quick passing game and a mobile quarterback, but they still must account for the bigger, faster defensive linemen they’ll face in the SEC this fall.
One of the great things about college football compared to the NFL is that no two teams are alike. While Sunday games can at times become a bit robotic with such similar styles of play, on Saturday you can watch Georgia Tech run the triple option at Noon, Texas A&M throw it all over the field at 3:30 and Alabama pound it up the middle at 8:00.
Missouri will get a taste of these philosophical differences this fall when it begins play in the defense-dominated SEC after coming over from the pass-happy Big 12. While the Big 12 certainly has a number of NFL-caliber defensive linemen, they lack the deep, dominant fronts that have helped the SEC win six consecutive national titles.
In his annual preview magazine, Phil Steele ranks the top teams at every position group. Of Steele’s nine best defensive lines, four (Alabama, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina) are on Missouri’s schedule. The Tigers do benefit from having a quick passing game and a mobile quarterback in junior James Franklin, but still must account for the bigger, faster defensive linemen they’ll face this fall.
“That’s going to be a big story,” Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel said. “Our offense in this league with the great defenses historically.”
Fall camp has taken its toll on Missouri, particularly in the trenches. Projected starting left guard Travis Ruth tore a triceps tendon and will miss the season, meaning right tackle Justin Britt is the lone starter returning from last year. The Tigers do welcome back left tackle Elvis Fisher, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after missing last season with a serious knee injury. As a 40-game starter, Fisher is the veteran presence in a relatively inexperienced group, and is looking forward to going toe-to-toe with some of college’s football best pass rushers.
“I think that’s a great personal challenge in itself, just going against the best talent,” said Fisher. “I know what I’m going to face is going to be tough week in and week out. I’m looking forward to the challenge. It’s going to be fun.”
Fun isn’t the word most often used when lining up against an SEC defense. Alas, Fisher’s confidence shows the team isn’t intimidated about new road trips to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia (the other Columbia) and The Swamp in Gainesville, as well as visits to Faurot Field from Alabama and Georgia. Pinkel spoke highly of his veteran left tackle both on and off the field.
“He brings so much more than just being a good football player,” Pinkel said of the Florida native. “To get him back, you have a left tackle like that that is a good player and his experience level and his leadership level.”
The tackles are set with Fisher and Britt, but the interior of the line has some red flags heading into next weekend’s season opener against Southeastern Louisiana. The projected starters at the three interior positions have combined for only seven starts, all by senior right guard Jack Meiners. Junior left guard Max Copeland has played in only two games, while center Mitch Morse played in a dozen games a year ago in a reserve role behind Ruth, who moved to guard this offseason before his unfortunate injury earlier this month.
Expect highly touted true freshman Evan Boehm to have a significant role this season. Outside of the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, Boehm was the most important recruit in the Tigers’ 2012 class. He’ll immediately be thrust into the rotation as, at a minimum, the fourth interior lineman. Speaking to the Columbia Daily Tribune last week, assistant offensive line coach Bruce Walker praised Boehm’s rapid development.
"In Evan's case, he's really, super talented,” said Walker. “He's really picked up on his fundamentals. He's going to play this year. He's going to have to help us.”
The Kansas City native had offers from major programs such as Arkansas, Auburn, Michigan, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Wisconsin, but chose to stay in his home state. Offensive linemen are always strong candidates to redshirt as freshmen due to the steep learning curve, but the Tigers won’t have that luxury this season. Boehm will play early and often, and could push Copeland for the starting role on the left side.
There can’t be growing pains up front if the Tigers hope to contend in the SEC East. Unlike the Big 12, the SEC doesn’t let its teams ease into conference play. After what should be a routine win against Southeastern Louisiana, Georgia and 2011 All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones roll into the Show Me State. Two weeks later, it’s off to South Carolina to meet the likes of Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, perhaps the best defensive end duo in college football.
It’s just one of many changes Missouri must adjust to in the SEC. Some are good – television money, ticket sales and exposure. Others, if the offensive line doesn’t quickly gel, may have the Tigers yearning for days gone by in the Big 12.