2011 Missouri Football Preview: Offensive Line

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends

Because of the turnover rate inherent to college football, analysts have long been searching for under-the-radar factors to help project which teams can expect in upcoming seasons. And though the return of skill position players was a longtime favorite for many observers, offensive line starts have since turned into a darling statistic. Phil Steele and the Wall Street Journal both trumpeted the value of line experience, and for those that subscribe to the philosophy, Missouri sets up extremely well in that regard in 2011. Thanks to the injury bug, however, things are not quite as rosy as they were a couple of weeks ago.

In 2010, of the ten schools with the most returning starts on the offensive line, seven made a bowl game, with three in particular (Florida State, Auburn and Wisconsin) exceeding expectations to varying levels of significance. Before Elvis Fisher's injury, Missouri looked to return 105 career starts, one of the ten highest totals in the country. However, Fisher accounted for 40 of those starts, meaning the line now returns just two third-year starters and a second-year starter. This is still very much an above-average level of experience, but Fisher's loss still stings. It is, however, good for 2012, when three starters depart and Fisher returns.

With the aforementioned three senior starters and experienced depth, the Missouri offensive line still has minimal uncertainty heading into 2011, and recent nagging injuries to two other starters have gotten more players first-string reps. The uncertainty that does exist comes on the interior.  First, Missouri must replace a three-year starter at center, a position where Missouri has had incredible stability, including only four starters since 1995.  Second, to the extent that Missouri had trouble on the offensive line last season, it came at the guard position.

Career Starts

Elvis Fisher: 40 (13 in 2010)
Dan Hoch: 26 (13 in 2010)
Austin Wuebbels: 26 (13 in 2010)
Jayson Palmgren: 12
Travis Ruth: 1

2010 Penalties

Jayson Palmgren: 5 for 30
Austin Wuebbels: 3 for 25
Elvis Fisher: 2 for 20
Justin Britt: 2 for 15
Travis Ruth: 2 for 15

Missouri’s offensive line committed 14 penalties in 2010, and 12 of them were committed by offensive guards. WIth "sixth man" Britt moving to left tackle, it does still appear that the shakier play comes inside.

Dan Hoch (6’7, 315, Sr., Harlan, Iowa)

Offensive linemen are often characterized as the smartest (if also the craziest) guys on the offensive side of the ball.  Hoch lives up to the stereotype.  He is not exceedingly athletic, but his combination of strength and brains makes him a significant force on the right side. At no point in his college career has Hoch looked overmatched or out of place, as Hoch’s biggest strength seems to be his ability to adapt to how defenses choose to attack him. In pass protection, defenses should theoretically always be a step ahead by virtue of being able to change the attack. Hoch’s mental game largely neutralizes that advantage.

Austin Wuebbels (6’4, 300, Sr., Troy, Ill.)

Wuebbels endured his growing pains and 2009, and though there were moments of regression along the way, he seemed to grow up as 2010 progressed. He cut down on his mistakes and matured in his second years as a starter.  Wuebbels is the resident "Mean Guy" of the offensive line. Though the depth continues to build behind him, he is likely a solid incumbent at this point.

Jayson Palmgren (6’2, 305, Sr., Kansas City, Mo.)

Unfortunately for Jayson Palmgren, he was noticed for many of the wrong reasons in 2010. He minimized his holding penalties after a troubling 2009 season, but if there was a linemen committing a false start, it was likely Palmgren. He was suspended for the Insight Bowl, and his replacements performed at a level as high or higher against a stout interior defensive line that featured first round NFL pick Adrian Clayborn. Palmgren's versatility is a strength, however; with Travis Ruth limited by nagging injuries this August, he has taken reps at center.

Justin Britt (6’6, 300, So., Lebanon, Mo.)

Britt found himself heavy in the line rotation as a redshirt freshman, and for the most part he acquitted himself well.  Britt is a uniquely talented lineman, tall and athletic enough to play on the outside but strong and mean enough to play guard. His versatility has made for an interesting offseason, but instead of a jack-of-all-trades backup, it appears he is now The Man at left tackle.

Travis Ruth (6’3, 290, Jr., Jefferson City, Mo.)

Ruth entered the Spring as the heir apparent to Missouri’s lineage of centers, and though he may not have the upside of some of the younger linemen, his spot performances in the last two seasons have been impressive. Tim Barnes was effusive in his praise of Travis Ruth when playing alongside him during Ruth’s spot duty as a guard in 2010, and Missouri will likely entrust Ruth to take over for Barnes as the anchor of the center of the line.

Jack Meiners (6’6, 305, Jr., St. Louis, Mo.)

Meiners became just the second lineman to play for Gary Pinkel at Mizzou without redshirting, and he has proven himself strong, smart, and perhaps most importantly, versatile.  He will likely head into the 2012 season with little to no career starts, but he will also have made a hefty contribution at both guard and tackle, and he will slide into the 2012 starting lineup wherever the need is strongest.

Mark Hill (6’6, 280, So., Branson, Mo.)

Gary Pinkel and staff make a point of putting the five best linemen on the field. Once they know the right five, they figure out positions from there. Thanks to all the injuries, we have been given an interesting glimpse into the Mizzou O-Line hierarchy. When Fisher went down, Britt replaced him. When the next guy temporarily went down, Jack Meiners filled the gap. When another player fell, it was Mark Hill's turn. Another athletic, versatile player, Hill has been by injuries of his own, but he is agile and smart; if the injuries continue, he could even steal a few starts.

Anthony Gatti (6’6, 285, RS Fr., St. Louis, Mo.)

Redshirt freshmen linemen are hard to gauge, as practice reports typically often gloss over how individual linemen are performing, other than in one-on-one drills. But this much is certain: Anthony Gatti is gigantic. And he has been getting some first-team reps of his own. Gatti has passed the eyeball test in every way imaginable, and combined with his reputation as a mean blocker and a scrapper in high school, it’s another nice piece for Missouri to be holding for the future.

Mitch Morse (6’6, 285, RS Fr., Austin, Texas)

Morse was a high school quarterback and receiver who hit a ridiculous growth spurt and became an athletic, high-upside offensive lineman, Morse tempted the coaching staff quite a bit, nearly missing a redshirt. He was an unknown commodity when he committed to Missouri, but in the time since has become one of the line’s more athletic and more intriguing options.

Nick Demien (6’6, 295, RS Fr., Wentzville, Mo.)

The most highly-touted player in the 2010 recruiting class, Demien redshirted despite being yet another versatile player with the perceived quickness to play outside and strength to play inside. The redshirt may have been somewhat of a disappointment a season ago, though Gary Pinkel and his coaching staff seemed almost preternaturally comfortable with the eight-man rotation a year ago.

Chris Freeman (6’8, 325, RS Fr., Trotwood, Ohio)

Before the Tony Mitchell soap opera and the second Sheldon Richardson saga, there was Chris Freeman, the monstrous, exciting recruit who failed to get immediately cleared by the NCAA. Freeman spent the fall of 2010 getting in shape and getting back into the swing of football after a year off, but thanks to his sheer mass and athleticism, he remains one of Missour’s more curious options. He also enjoyed a fabulous spring, working his way into the second string and building optimism for where his upside may take him in 2012 and beyond.

INCOMING

Taylor Chappell (6’6, 270, Fr., Canadian, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

A small-school Texas stud, Chappell was close to receiving four stars from Rivals, settling instead for the highest three-star designation. Thanks to his relationship with Mizzou assistant Josh Henson, he chose the Tigers over offers from UCLA, Arizona, Texas Tech, Kansas and others. A spread offense veteran, he is long and lean enough to assume that his future is at tackle. Despite limited scholarships, Mizzou put a heavy emphasis on offensive linemen in the 2011 recruiting class, and Chappell was one of the first students to receive an offer.

Michael Boddie (6’6, 270, Fr., Gilmer, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

It seems like an annual rite of passage for Mizzou to steal a relatively unknown player from the Houston commit list, and that player in 2010 was Michael Boddie.  Boddie committed to Houston in March, but after visiting Columbia in October and hearing rave reviews from former Gilmer teammates Tristen Holt and Braylon Webb, he made the switch. 

Brad McNulty (6’3, 310, Fr., Allen, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

The wide body of the incoming recruiting class, McNulty was a pancake blocks specialist and three-year starter for a solid Allen program.  Most of Mizzou’s offensive line signees over the years have been originally listed in the 6’4-6’6, 270-290 pound range and thus have been hard to differentiate between guard and tackle. But McNulty is an outlier who appears to be an interior lineman, no questions asked.

Connor McGovern (6’4, 275, Fr., Fargo, N.D., Rivals 3-Star)

McGovern got an offer from the Tigers by being a summer camp wonder.  He has plenty of family from Missouri, but playing in the polar opposite of a football hot bed meant he had to impress the coaching staff with his measurables. McGovern did just that.

2011 vs. 2010

Missouri’s tackles are amongst the Big 12 elite, as Fisher and Hoch have developed solid reputations around the conference. However, Missouri’s interior line remains a point of concerns. Wuebbels’ growth in 2010 was a welcomed development, but Palmgren’s proneness to inopportune penalties could be an unwelcome hindrance to a Missouri offense whose first-year starting quarterback may not have a huge margin for error. This unit continues to amass depth and could legitimately roll about nine-deep in 2011, but it will be the starting five (and, in particular, the three interior starters) that may be the X-factor for Missouri.

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