If we were making a list of the battles we were interested in seeing this spring, some predictable ones come to mind. De'Vion Moore vs Kendial Lawrence. Ro Woodland vs T.J. Moe vs L'Damian Washington vs Jaleel Clark vs Kerwin Stricker. Terrell Resonno vs Marvin Foster vs everyone else at DT. Zaviar Gooden vs Donovan Bonner. Kevin Rutland vs Kip Edwards vs everybody else at CB. Et cetera.
But the single most IMPORTANT battle could be one we haven't really talked about at all. In fact, it's not really even one battle; it's two. I am referring to the battle for the two starting guard positions. One starter (Austin Wuebbels) returns, but to me he did not excel to the point of locking down the position for the foreseeable future. At right guard, there is a large cast of candidates. If the winners of the battles for starting right and left guard are solid and capable, Mizzou could have its best line in ages -- lord knows the other three spots are solid. But if guard play is iffy again in 2010, we could see the same hot-and-cold play that randomly plagued Mizzou in 2009.
(Oh, and unless otherwise noted, pictures are below are via RMN's own Bill Carter.)
(Also: have a seat, as this is a lengthy read.)
T Dan Hoch (6'7, 320, Jr.)
Mizzou was the beneficiary of Nebraska's 2007 collapse, not only because they landed Blaine Gabbert with the Huskers' (and Bill Callahan's) help, but also because they landed big Dan Hoch, a then-4-star lineman from western Iowa. Hoch became the first offensive lineman to play for Gary Pinkel as a true freshman and seemed to step right in for Colin Brown in 2009 with little problem. For all the struggles that the offensive line seemed to experience at times, the one guy I can't ever remember making a huge mistake was Hoch. In his first year of starting, it appeared via my very naked eye that Hoch had quickly become Mizzou's best lineman. We've talked in other posts about Mizzou potentially getting bigger and adding more of a power element to their offense. Well ... having a 6'7, 320+ pounder anchoring the strong side is a pretty nice asset in that regard ... or any regard, really.
C Tim Barnes (6'4, 310, Sr.)
If Hoch wasn't the best lineman, Tim Barnes was. Just as we've been spoiled by eight straight years of solid quarterback play, we have been spoiled by almost FIFTEEN straight years of great play at center. Think about that. Center U. doesn't have quite the ring as Linebacker U. or anything, but between Rob Riti, A.J. Ricker, Adam Spieker and now Tim Barnes, Mizzou hasn't had a question mark at center since the beginning of Larry Smith's time in Columbia.
One of Barnes' strengths is pretty obvious. Spieker was a very good center, and for all I know, he was a better blocker or quarterback-of-the-line than Barnes, but he would occasionally spray a snap to the right or left. Barnes simply has not done that very much at all, for Chase Daniel or Blaine Gabbert. Plus ... well, Landry Jones has got nothing on Barnes in the upper lip department, where not only does #62 sport a solid 'stache, but he's got himself an unholy handlebar 'stache.
T Elvis Fisher (6'5, 300, Jr.)
Fisher is the Mr. Versatility of the 2010 Mizzou line, not because he can line up at tackle or guard (though as far as we know, he can), but because he lined up as ... wait for it ... a fullback at times in a short yardage package in 2009, both allowing Mizzou coaches to show a little creativity and making old-school Mizzou fans' heads explode.
Beyond the fun formations, Fisher might not have shown quite as much improvement in 2009 as we had hoped, though he was still solid. If you are to believe that the left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line, then Mizzou should have an excellent one in 2010 and 2011, as Fisher, who has already started 27 career games, still has quite a bit of eligibility left. To say the least, we see some question marks at the guard position, but with Fisher and Hoch, the tackle spots are happily locked down for the foreseeable future.
G Austin Wuebbels (6'4, 305, Jr.)
Okay, time for the question mark. While Mizzou returns Hoch, Fisher and Barnes, they have to replace one starting guard (Kurtis Gregory), and the other one left something to be desired at times. I'll say this right out front: I do not know nearly as much about the inner workings of offensive line play -- I just know that if I notice you on the line, chances are it's because you screwed something up. Who are the two linemen I noticed most in 2009? Gregory and Wuebbels. Guard play was underwhelming, and whether it was because of youth (for Wuebbels, at least), or the slightly new blocking schemes, or whatever, it was what it was, and fixing this issue could be as important as any other issue on the table for 2010.
Wuebbels will enter 2010 as the obvious leader for one of two starting guard positions, but I honestly don't think there's a competition for just Gregory's replacement spot at right guard -- I think a solid spring from one of the players below could result in two new starters on the line.
G Jayson Palmgren (6'2, 305, Jr.)
I say this not just because of the above picture, but Jayson Palmgren appears to use pure power as much as any lineman, and ... well, there are worse things in the world than that. He was called for multiple penalties in 2009 (his holding penalty against Nebraska was the final of about 17 of them, and it effectively put an end to Mizzou's last-ditch drive after they had fallen behind 20-12), and that's not what you want to see, but you do figure that the experience he put together last year gives him the inside track at the starting right guard slot in 2010.
G/T Jack Meiners (6'6, 305, So.)
It's quite likely that Wuebbels and Palmgren will start out the spring as projected starting guards, but look out for Meiners. Following a year after Hoch, Big Jack became Mizzou's second offensive lineman to play as a true freshman, and while he seemingly ended up seeing mostly junk-time action, the fact that he played at all tells you the coaches were extremely impressed with him. He appears as strong as Palmgren, and even though he appears built more like a natural tackle, Pinkel and staff have said thousands of times that they look for the five best linemen, then find a position for them. If those are the standards, there is a pretty decent chance that Meiners could sneak into the top five of the depth chart and land a spot as a starting guard. Wuebbels and Palmgren are far from laminated into the guard spots.
G J.T. Beasley (6'4, 295, Jr.)
C/G Travis Ruth (6'3, 310, So.)
Call Beasley Guard Candidate #4. The converted center from Tennessee found himself in the rotation in 2009, and I view him a lot like you'll see I view someone like Kevin Rutland or Brandon Gerau -- I think he can a solid contributor, but I quietly hope younger guys with seemingly higher upside overtake him, simply because I love youth and upside, not because I know anything about how any of these guys practice. Beasley is clearly rather versatile -- they switched him from center to get him into the rotation, and he acquitted himself at least reasonably well. (And then he ended up listed as a center again at the end of the season. Go figure.)
Meanwhile, when Beasley moved to guard, Ruth took his place at center. After fighting through injuries most of his redshirt year, Ruth didn't get just a ton of chances to prove himself, though I do recall reading about and seeing quite a few poor snaps from the backups back in the spring. I think Ruth's future is not at center, and that is backed up by the fact that we've heard Nick Demien was asked to start learning the center (and guard) position to maybe get him on the field sooner (since Mizzou is obviously pretty locked in at tackle. And being that Ruth lost a season at guard by playing center in 2009, it appears that he might be getting lost in the shuffle quite a bit. I think it will likely be pretty tough for the Jeff City product to see the field in the near future.
G/T Mike Prince (6'3, 300, Sr.)
Prince is another player who has never really broken too far into the rotation (not far enough to have a good picture taken of him, apparently). He has the size to play guard but has spent most of his time at tackle, backing up Elvis Fisher last season. I think I saw a rumor that the Southlake Carroll had gone ahead and graduated and left (or was going to), but I have no confirmation of that -- it wouldn't surprise me if he took that route, but with the infinitesimal number of seniors on this team, we might need all the experienced leaders we can get, even if they don't really see the field.
G/T Daniel Jenkins (6'4, 305, So.)
G Taylor Davis (6'4, 290, So.)
Two of your typical "Texas sleeper" recruits who played in similar systems in high school but didn't crack the two-deep last fall, Jenkins and Davis have been somewhat forgotten. With the way Jenkins gained momentum late in the recruiting process -- he supposedly spurned OU's advances late in the game -- I actually had quite a bit of hope for him heading into 2009, but he was lost in the shuffle. Naturally, that led to rumors of a transfer ("young Texan buried on the three-deep" does fit the bill for a lot of the transfers we've had in this program), but those rumors were put to rest when his little brother Jacob committed to Mizzou. Of course, then Jacob de-committed and committed to OSU instead, so I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the rumors, especially if the Gilmer, TX, product doesn't have a breakthrough spring.
Davis, on the other hand, was the sleepiest of sleepers, drawing offers from only North Texas, Tulsa and Kent State before committing to Mizzou. He was considered a raw athlete, a long-term project, and I guess that has been confirmed so far. He could be a Ryan Madison type -- a guy who we completely forget about for a year or two, who suddenly finds quite a bit of playing time as a sophomore or junior.
Or not. Who knows.
G/T Kirk Lakebrink (6'6, 320, Sr.)
One of the more interesting stories on the line, Lakebrink is a Liberty, MO, product who spent two years at Drake University (he played three games there as a redshirt freshman) before deciding to move to Columbia. He's bounced around from tackle to guard and back, but he ended up on the two-deep at times this season, and assuming he's still around this spring and fall (you never know with walk-ons), he could actually find himself in the rotation, especially if guys like Jenkins, Davis and Prince don't work out.
G/T Justin Britt (6'6, 285, RSFr.)
Of the 2009 OL signees, Jack Meiners deservedly got most of the attention for seeing the field in his first months on campus. However, the guy with the best long-term potential might just be Britt. The redshirt freshman from Lebanon gave the staff a lot to think about in August -- they supposedly almost tore his redshirt off as well -- and he has one of the most underrated qualities you can think of in terms of playing offensive guard: he was an absolute stud wrestler in high school. From that sentence alone, I know he's got great footwork and power, and considering that it appears he may have already passed guys like Prince and Jenkins on the depth chart (or will soon), I am in love with this guy's ... wait for it ... upside.
Now, I could be far over-estimating his progress and potential, but I do think Britt is a legitimate candidate to emerge from the spring with a starting job. While maybe setting myself up for disappointment, I fully expect him to join Wuebbels, Palmgren, Meiners, Beasley and whoever else in the guards battle. This guy has a near perfect "tough, small-town Missourian" resume, and ... well, I should stop talking him up now. I'll let his play in the spring speak for him.
T Mark Hill (6'6, 270, RSFr.)
Mark Hill was Kadeem Green before Kadeem Green. Hill injured his Achilles his senior year in high school, and even though he was somewhat involved in August practices, he spent most of this season trying to get back to 100%. Steven Hill's younger brother, Hill was a strong all-around athlete at Branson. He set a school discus record, and as Barry Odom said last February, he has the "skinny at 260" frame, meaning he could easily develop into a pretty monstrous tackle by the time the strength & conditioning program is done with him. No idea what to expect from him this season, but he's certainly got some long-term potential.
Nick Demien (6'6, 295, Fr.)
St. Louis, MO, ****, #64 player in the country, #1 player in MO
The gem of Mizzou's recruiting class, Demien overcame a knee injury early in his senior season to not only play in the U.S. Army All-American game, but to earn a starting spot. His natural position is tackle, but as mentioned above, he is apparently going to (at least temporarily) move inside to fight for playing time. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him listed as Barnes' backup heading into September, though honestly, if he is as good as people say, we might even want to throw his name into the mix for starting guard. Probably not, but who knows? For the first time since the 2007 class, it doesn't appear that Mizzou will sign a 5-star player in this recruiting class, but you could do a lot worse than having Demien as your top-ranked recruit.
Mitch Morse (6'6, 285, Fr.)
Austin, TX, ***
While ESPN Insider's recruiting service doesn't like Mizzou's recruiting class as much as Rivals does, they love them some Mitch Morse. While he was a bit of a sleeper when he committed to Mizzou, he is (along with Demien) Mizzou's highest-rated commit on Insider. Here's part of what they have to say:
Very good technician that can execute the reach and zone block with proper footwork and hand placement; runs his feet to maintain control and shorten the edge. Displays athletic ability when pulling and trapping and is alert to defenders crossing his face. Long arms and quick feet help in pass protection. As in the run game, uses the hands to deliver a jarring first punch to the pass rusher to stalemate the charge. Must be careful to not get too aggressive and overextend or cross feet.
There's another fun aspect to Morse's resume: he was once a wide receiver.
Mitch had not only started the 2007 season on the junior varsity, but was playing a completely different position. A wide receiver during his freshman year, Morse had switched to quarterback during the off-season.
With classmate Mike McNamara leading the varsity squad, though, Morse was looking at a high school career as a backup. So Morse asked his coaches to give him another new position.
They put him on the offensive line.
"I was still excited because I was going to get some playing time," Morse said. "It was definitely weird for the first practice. I had no idea what I was doing."
Two seasons and nearly 90 pounds later, Morse has emerged as one of the top offensive linemen in the area. An All-Central Texas first-team selection in 2008, Morse has committed to play at the University of Missouri next season.
"I really don't think there is a lineman in the state of Texas that I'd trade for him," St. Michael's coach Ed McCabe said.
You want to talk about versatility? Mitch Morse has versatility.
Anthony Gatti (6'6, 280, Fr.)
St. Louis, MO, ***
Gatti was a half-credit shy of enrolling at Mizzou in January (he actually had his stuff packed and ready to go before finding out), but now he'll have to wait until June. He'll also have to wait a while to show his stuff, as he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus in November. He's a tough SOB (looks like it too), so I'm sure he'll come back pretty quickly. Gatti rose pretty high in the rankings, and pretty quickly, so he's another guy to get excited about, especially considering it seems like every college and pro offensive lineman in the history of the world has torn his knee up at some point, and he will almost certainly get back to 100%.
Chris Freeman (6'7, 340, Fr.)
An absolutely monstrous tackle big enough to physically dominate defensive ends and athletic enough to be a pretty good basketball player, Freeman has become something like the Andy Richter of offensive tackles -- every time it looks like he's finally made it (to Columbia), his plans get canceled. Freeman was actually on campus and ready to contribute in August, but the NCAA clearinghouse threw a kink into his plans, and he went to prep school for a semester (call that his Andy Richter Controls the Universe). He was seemingly ready to enroll this month ... and it turned out that he still hadn't completely qualified (Andy Barker P.I.). Hopefully his Tonight Show gig sticks, however, and he shows up this summer ready to roll. His success at Mizzou is far from guaranteed, but he's such a monster that I want to see what he can do.
2010 vs 2009
Before discussing 2010 vs 2009, let's discuss 2009 vs 2008: despite the return of three starters, Mizzou's line statistically regressed in 2009, going from one of the best lines in the country in 2008 to one that was sometimes great, sometimes terrible last season. That alone should give you pause when I say what I'm about to say (but I can't help but say it): I'm not sure any unit on the Mizzou football team -- not QB, not WR, not LB -- has as high a ceiling as the offensive line. They have size (Hoch, Meiners, hopefully Freeman), mass (Barnes, Palmgren, Lakebrink), outstanding athleticism and versatility (Fisher, Britt, Beasley, Hill, Morse), attitude (Wuebbels, Gatti), and pure talent (Hoch, Meiners, Demien). And youth. Lots of youth. Did you happen to notice that of the projected top ten or so linemen, only one (Barnes) is a senior? By my count, Mizzou brings to the table roughly 80 career starts in 2010, and barring injury/defection, that number should rise to a positively insane 100+ in 2011. Plus, whatever changes introduced to the blocking schemes last year should have been further banged into the players' memory/instincts in 2010.
As a whole, we don't completely know what to expect from the Mizzou offense in 2010 -- we don't know how much more improving Blaine Gabbert will do, we don't know whether we'll see 2008 Derrick Washington or 2009 Derrick Washington, we don't know who will step up at wide receiver (among the boatload of candidates), we don't know what role the tight ends will play, and we don't know how much of a step forward the offensive line will take (or who will start at guard). But there are so many candidates for starring roles, and there is so much pure potential everywhere you look, that if Spring 2010 sees the typical spring's worth of improvement and development, the sky is the limit for this unit and this team.