Glen Elarbee had to know what he was getting into. The Middle Tennessee grad got his first full-time Power Five job last year when Barry Odom brought him aboard, and the tests began immediately: Elarbee inherited maybe the least proven offensive line in all of the Power Five.
With a senior-laden two-deep, Mizzou’s 2015 offensive line was horrendous. Center Evan Boehm was hurt, star guard Connor McGovern was playing tackle, and the rest of the line was a combination of frustrating upperclassmen and not-yet-ready underclassmen. And thanks to Nate Crawford’s career-ending injuries, Alec Abeln was the only returnee with starting experience at Mizzou heading into 2016. He had three career starts.
(Michael Stannard, a Memphis graduate transfer, had started a few games at UM as well.)
That Mizzou improved from 124th in Rushing S&P+ to 67th and from 85th in Adj. Sack Rate to 13th last year was a minor miracle.
Sure, that improvement wasn't all on the line. Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel's system puts an emphasis on quick reads and throws, which plays an obvious role in avoiding sacks. Plus, freshman running back Damarea Crockett had plenty to do with the rushing improvement. In fact, in terms of my Adj. Line Yards measure, the improvement in the ground game may have ALL been on Crockett and company; Mizzou ranked 102nd in ALY in 2015 and 105th in 2016.
Still, the Tigers were infinitely better in short yardage situations (126th in power success rate in 2015, 27th in 2016), and while there was still plenty of work to be done, it was obvious that last year's dreadfully inexperienced line was better than 2015's iteration.
And now there's experience. That's exciting.
Those responsible for all 60 line starts last year are back, a nearly 180-degree turnaround in the experience department. Tyler Howell, Kevin Pendleton, and Paul Adams now have 12 games of starting experience, Samson Bailey and Abeln have nine, and walk-ons Adam Ploudre and Jonah Dubinski have a combined as well.
Better yet, those responsible for 35 of those 60 are scheduled to return in 2018 as well.
In theory, returning everybody results in a level of continuity and chemistry that makes it hard not to improve. (Mizzou’s 2015 offensive line: the exception that proves the rule, I guess.) And Mizzou returns not only the starters but also the backups. The competition will continue, at least on the interior. Howell and Adams are locked in at tackle, and Pendleton will be Mizzou’s starting left guard for another two years. But the battle at center and right guard is ongoing.
Who redshirts? (More apt question: who doesn’t?)
Mizzou signed five linemen in this past class — JUCO transfer Yasir Durant and four freshmen. Barry Odom proved last year that he has no problem tearing redshirts off for even a little bit of help, but it will be interesting to see if any of the freshmen see the field like Tre’vour Simms did a year ago.
Case Cook seems to be the guy coaches were most excited about, but it appears he’s seen as a center, and the depth chart at center is awfully clogged. Will Pompey Coleman’s spring enrollment give him a head start? Will Larry Borom’s sheer mass give him a shot? Is Cook so good that he shows up on the two-deep and forces some changes — Abeln to right guard, et al?
What’s the ceiling?
Even if we see improvement this fall, how much higher can this line rise? In terms of recruiting rankings, this is one of the least impressive units on the team; AJ Harris is the only former four-star recruit, and injuries have held him back quite a bit. And in terms of the 247Sports Composite, Howell is the only other non-freshman who graded out higher than 0.8500 (mid-three-star). Recruiting rankings can be pretty flaky with offensive linemen, but they can still be used as a hint of upside, and there’s a chance that Missouri’s line is pretty close to its ceiling.
That could result in an opportunity for the new guys. Cook, Coleman, and Hyrin Morrison White were all above the 0.8500 mark, and Durant was pretty close at 0.8489. In fact, sorting linemen by recruiting ranking almost gives you the direct opposite list as sorting by year of eligibility.
Top 8 Mizzou offensive linemen by Composite rating:
1. AJ Harris (So.)
2. Tyler Howell (Sr.)
3. Case Cook (Fr.)
4. Hyrin Morrison White (Fr.)
5. Pompey Coleman (Fr.)
6. Paul Adams (Jr.)
7. Yasir Durant (So.)
8. Tre’Vour Simms (So.)
The next couple of seasons will be interesting in this regard. Experience and upside don’t necessarily mesh all that well, and Elarbee might have a lot of “floor vs. ceiling” choices to make in 2018.