Experience on the offensive line is not directly equivalent to quality. We'll start with that disclaimer. But there's no question that the correlation between increased experience and improvement is quite strong, especially on the line, which so heavily relies on teamwork, continuity and knowing your assignment. Talent matters, too, and no line bereft of talent will succeed, even if it is full of four-year starters. Still, a line with a certain level of talent and 100 career starts is going to perform better than a line with the same talent and 30 starts.
Here is an approximation of what we expected Mizzou's OL two-deep entering fall camp.
|2011 Two-Deep||Pos.||Ht, Wt||2012
|Elvis Fisher||LT||6'5, 295||Sr.||*** (5.5)||40 career starts, Injured 2011|
|Anthony Gatti||LT||6'6, 295||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Travis Ruth||LG||6'2, 295||Sr.||*** (5.6)||8 career starts|
|Evan Boehm||LG||6'3, 290||Fr.||**** (5.8)|
|Mitch Morse||C||6'5, 295||So.||*** (5.7)|
|Brad McNulty||C||6'4, 295||RSFr.||*** (5.5)|
|Jack Meiners||RG||6'6, 310||Sr.||*** (5.6)||6 career starts|
|Max Copeland||RG||6'3, 290||Jr.||NR|
|Justin Britt||RT||6'6, 300||Jr.||** (5.4)||13 career starts|
|Taylor Chappell||RT||6'5, 290||RSFr.||*** (5.7)|
Now, "career starts" as a measure has limitations, as evidenced by the fact that Travis Ruth and Jack Meiners entered 2012 with only 14 career starts. They had compiled quite a bit of experience in the past three years; Meiners had been a solid member of the rotation for three years, Ruth for two. Still, considering the losses of three 2011 starters who had combined for 103 starts -- guards Austin Wuebbels and Jayson Palmgren and tackle Dan Hoch -- the fact that Mizzou entered with 61 career starts wasn't too bad. Elvis Fisher's 2011 injury helped the line in 2012, obviously.
If this line had stayed entirely healthy over the course of a 13-game season (never likely, but not impossible), Mizzou would have finished the season with the following starts distribution: Elvis Fisher 53 (!) games, Justin Britt 26, Travis Ruth 21, Jack Meiners 19, and Mitch Morse 13. Fisher, Ruth and Meiners, then, would have graduated, leaving only Britt and Morse with starting experience (39 starts). Mizzou would enter 2013 completely devoid of starting experience at left guard, right guard and, presumably, right tackle (since Britt would be expected to move to left tackle). Players like Evan Boehm, Taylor Chappell, and perhaps Anthony Gatti, Max Copeland and Chris Freeman would have seen some time in the rotation, but still, 39 starts split between two players.
But then the injuries started. Travis Ruth tore his tricep. (Rumor has it that he is returning to light practice this week.) Taylor Chappell tore his ACL. Jack Meiners went down for a while, then returned and was forced to play his worst position (tackle). Elvis Fisher went down against Georgia. Mitch Morse went down against Vanderbilt, then Meiners did, too. And Justin Britt just went down against Florida. It has been amazing to watch. We're not talking about Maryland quarterbacks here, but the Mizzou offensive line has certainly been one of the most endangered units in the country in 2012.
Assuming there are no more injuries the rest of the season -- and let's face it: that's one of the most laughable assumptions you'll ever see me make on this site -- we'll be looking at the following distribution of starts over the 2012 season (according to the current depth chart -- PDF):
|at South Carolina||Britt||Boehm||Morse||Copeland||Meiners|
|at Texas A&M||Fisher||Boehm||McNulty||Copeland||Morse|
Jack Meiners is still out this week, but last I heard he was expected back before the end of the season. So he will probably replace Copeland for at least one more game. And there's a chance Ruth returns in the coming weeks as well. (I'm going to assume Ruth wouldn't be eligible for a sixth year of eligibility for one reason or another, simply because we haven't even once heard that mentioned as an option even though he's indeed a fifth-year senior.) If Ruth gets back by A&M, that will give Mizzou eight different starters on the line at some point this season (that they have only started seven despite the shuffling is damn impressive). If another man goes down before Meiners or Ruth returns (a distinct possibility), then perhaps Anthony Gatti or one of the other backups ends up in the starting lineup at some point as well.
As projected, the only position that will have started the same player all 12 games (LG) lost its expected starter in August. But in this injury-free (LOL) scenario, Mizzou will finish the season with the following distribution of starts:
- Fisher: 49
- Britt: 22
- Boehm: 12 (minus perhaps one or two)
- Morse: 11
- Copeland: 11 (minus perhaps one or two)
- Meiners: 9 (plus perhaps one or two)
- Ruth: 8 (plus perhaps one or two)
- McNulty: 5
Subtract the seniors and get Britt healthy for the beginning of 2013 (technically not a given), and you're looking at 61 career starts, distributed among five players, heading into next fall. A potential starting line of Britt-Boehm-McNulty-Copeland-Morse would have starting experience across the board. Throw in Taylor Chappell (who was, again, the top backup tackle before he went down), Gatti (who has gotten quite a few reps despite the lack of starts), Chris Freeman (soon to be a junior), Connor McGovern (soon to be a sophomore), Jordan Williams (redshirting), and an intriguing batch of freshmen -- four-star Iowa tackle Jake Campos and three-star linemen Clay Rhodes, Alec Abeln and Harneet Gill, at least one of whom might work into the two-deep -- and you're looking at a 2012 weakness turning into a 2013 strength. Or, at least, you're looking at simple experience and healing turning a 2012 weakness into a non-weakness.
All season, I've been a) hammering the line hard for its poor performance and b) pointing out that present-tense struggles could turn into future-tense success. You have no choice but to take your lumps when you are this (unintentionally) inexperienced, whether you are in the SEC or a lesser conference. Mizzou currently ranks 99th in Adj. Line Yards (they were second in 2011) and 68th in Adj. Sack Rate (71st in 2011).
Even marginal improvement here, combined with a healthy James Franklin, better backup quarterbacks if Franklin isn't healthy (a more mature Corbin Berkstresser and a freshly-redshirted Maty Mauk), a healthy(ish) Henry Josey, a second-year Dorial Green-Beckham, senior versions of Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington, junior versions of Marcus Murphy (who looked assertive and incredibly confident against Florida) and Jimmie Hunt (I'm never going to give up on him), an actual pass-catching tight end in Sean Culkin (redshirting because of injury after wowing in August), and another incoming freshman or two (four-star running back/athlete Chase Abbington? Receiver J'Mon Moore? Projected receiver Donovahn Jones?) ... and yeah, it's easy to get starry-eyed about drastic improvement in 2013. Getting too starry-eyed about anything typically leads to disappointment, however, so we'll conservatively say that Mizzou could have the pieces in place to at least return to 2011 levels of competence next fall. As long as the injury bugs gets tired of biting, anyway.