Missouri Offensive Line Will Determine Tigers' Fate In 2012

Evan Boehm and company are trying to grow up in a hurry. (Photo via Bill Carter.)

At the beginning of fall camp, if you had asked me to rank Mizzou's offensive linemen (based on previous performance, practice reports, and general, educated guesses), it would have looked something like this:

1. LT Elvis Fisher (Sr.)
2. RT Justin Britt (Jr.)
3. LG Travis Ruth (Sr.)
4. RG Jack Meiners (Sr.)
5. C Mitch Morse (So.)
6. RT Taylor Chappell (RSFr.)
7. LT Anthony Gatti (So.)
8. LG Evan Boehm (Fr.)
9. RG Max Copeland (Jr.)
10. RT Chris Freeman (So.)
11. C Brad McNulty (RSFr.)
12. LT Michael Boddie (RSFr.)
13. RG Nick Demien (So.)
14. LG Connor McGovern (RSFr.)
15. RT Jordan Williams (Fr.)

A month or so ago, Players No. 1-5 were the starters. By the end of the Georgia game, Nos. 3 and 6 were lost for the season, No. 4 still had yet to play in 2012, and No. 1 was out "indefinitely." The first string consisted of No. 2 (still not 100 percent after missing most of fall camp with injury), No. 5, No. 8, No. 9 and No. 11, and Nos. 2 and 5 were playing different positions. That's brutal.

In the upcoming BTBS post (I swear it's on the way!), the stats will tell the tale: While Mizzou did alright in terms of pass protection (a 4.7 percent sack rate could be worse considering Jarvis Jones' presence), the line got absolutely no push in run blocking. Mizzou averaged a paltry 1.09 line yards per carry against the Dawgs. How bad is that? Here are the current raw Line Yardage rankings for 2012:

124: Hawaii (0.40 line yards per carry)
123: Boise State (1.10)
122. UMass (1.64)
121. Tulane (1.71)
120. Oregon State (1.79)

So yeah, it's bad. (Georgia, meanwhile, averaged 2.62 line yards per carry, which would rank around 100th. Mizzou's defensive line definitely came to play as well.) Now, there's nothing saying Mizzou's performance would have been infinitely better with a 100 percent healthy line -- Georgia's defensive front is outstanding -- but I'd have loved to see that battle. Mizzou ranked second in the country last year in Adj. Line Yards. Now, early on, they're hovering near the bottom.

While Mizzou didn't completely give up on the run, their use of it basically consisted of "keep 'em honest" plunges by James Franklin. (Some were of the "zone read keeper" variety, but quite a few were out of an empty backfield; MizzouRugby's post, by the way, unintentionally shows us the limitations in line stats. Sometimes the guy you intentionally don't block is good enough to make a play on his own, and it is in no way the line's fault.)

I was frustrated at the time that Mizzou had taken Kendial Lawrence and Marcus Murphy out of the gameplan as quickly as they did (James Franklin and Lawrence muffed an exchange with 13:14 remaining in the second quarter; running backs would get only two carries in the next 32 minutes of action), but the stats above suggest the adjustment was a bit understandable. You never want to become completely one-dimensional, but the coaches pretty clearly determined that focusing more heavily on the run wouldn't help the cause; and considering they went up 17-9 almost entirely with the pass, it's hard to blame them. Even if I disagree with a decision, if I can see the logic behind it I typically end up okay.

(I still fail to see the logic in running Trey Barrow toward the sideline on the fake punt, meanwhile, but I'm never going to get an answer to that one, so I'm just going to move on.)

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier this week, Mizzou is destined to play in a ton of close games this season, and it is absolutely going to need a solid line to reach any sort of semi-impressive win total.

  • Arizona State's defense currently ranks eighth in the country with a 13.8 percent sack rate.
  • South Carolina's defense currently ranks 14th in the country in Line Yards Per Carry, with 1.87. Also: they have Jadeveon Clowney.
  • Alabama is simply ridiculous in every possible way.
  • Florida's defensive line almost has five-star former recruits across the board and completely snuffed out Texas A&M's offense after the three opening drives.
  • Texas A&M sacked Florida's Jeff Driskel eight times last Saturday.

Some opponents, like UCF and Tennessee, have stellar offenses and active secondaries, which will present their own set of problems. But if Mizzou goes from having a Top 20-caliber line to having a Bottom 20-caliber line, Mizzou's goals go from "eight or nine wins" to "bowl eligibility by any means necessary."

The odds are pretty good that this line will gel as time goes on, of course. First of all, Mizzou simply usually produces solid lines. They have for most of the Gary Pinkel era. Plus, Jack Meiners is due back soon, and Elvis Fisher and Travis Ruth supposedly might be back later in the year. While that might actually hurt any sort of continuity up front -- seriously, there are going to more different starting lineups this year than there have been in about the last five years combined -- Mizzou can use all the talent and experience it can get. As I always say, injuries hurt in the present and help significantly in the future tense. And there's no doubt that players like Evan Boehm, Max Copeland and now Brad McNulty are all getting solid experience for the future; but the present still matters, and offensive line coach Bruce Walker will have to pull off one of his greatest coaching jobs to keep Mizzou's 2012 goals even relatively lofty.

Not that Coach Walker doesn't already know that.

With so much turnover across the line from the start of camp — remember, Britt is the only current starter who was part of the original starting five — the group is still working on communication and pre-snap reads and adjustments. For the young linemen, the unfamiliarity only adds to the difficulty of playing with the first unit for the first time in their careers.

"Any time you're not 100 percent sure what you're doing and where you're going, it slows you down," Walker said. "It makes you tentative. If you're playing really good people and you're a little bit tentative about what you're supposed to do — Do I have my feet right? Do I have my hands right? — it'll get you. That's probably the biggest challenge. Last year, we had injuries but we had experience. We were able to make adjustments easier. As you play, you gain a bank of knowledge. If you're Elvis Fisher, you've seen everything. They haven't invented anything new he ain't seen. Well, if you're Brad McNulty or Evan Boehm or Max Copeland or Mitch Morse, you've haven't seen all that stuff yet. You just keep working and try to get them better.

"Ain't no magic wand out there, I'll tell you that."

Ain't no magic wand out there.

  • The Trib: Missouri O-line struggles as Elvis leaves
    The Trib: Missouri's offensive line again in need of repair
    The Missourian: Few missteps for McNulty on Missouri offensive line
    KC Star: MU's Elvis Fisher out indefinitely with knee injury
    KC Star: Sunday rewind: Britt, MU O-line seek improvement against ASU
    Post-Dispatch: Mizzou's depleted front line takes another hit
    The Maneater: McNulty, Missouri look to respond to next injury
    KBIA Sports: Elvis Fisher's knee injury will not end his season
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