When we kicked off offensive line preview week, we got a message in our Rock M writer page from our esteemed Football Maestro Nate Edwards (i.e. Nate the Great) characterizing the offensive line write ups as, “not as sexy as the skill positions, but still very important.”
First off, Nate, stop kink-shaming. Some people find offensive line tape very sexy, and it’s pretty insensitive of you to say otherwise. Second (and I know Mr. Edwards agrees with me here), there’s actually a pretty notable exception to this general rule of thumb in the recent past of Mizzou Football — that’s the Justin Britt-Max Copeland-Evan Boehm-Connor McGovern-Mitch Morse powerhouse that was doing the dirty work in 2013.
In truth, Mizzou Football has never been known for its stout offensive lines — really, who is, aside from the championship-caliber blue bloods that continually crank out NFL linemen year after year? Sure, the Tigers have put their fair share of linemen into the league, but the Tigers have always relied on speed and flash to reach their ceiling. Even then, it’s hard to place many of the great lunch pail men of Mizzou’s past. There’s a reason you think of Kellen Winslow and Jeremy Maclin before Craig Heimburger and Colin Brown. Linemen are rarely household names, even when they’re the elite of the elite. That’s the nature of their jobs.
And that’s why the offensive line of the 2013 SEC East champion Missouri Tigers remain such a confounding, lovable group seven years later. To this day, anyone who was paying attention can probably rattle off at a minimum of two or three, if not the entire starting five, of the men who protected James Franklin and Maty Mauk. They were burly. They were talented. They were fun as hell. How many years do you get to say all of those things about a line?
Perhaps most important, though? They were experienced. The theme of our line previews (and the 2020 offseason) has been the inexperience of the offensive line, and Eli Drinkwitz’s efforts to bring some more experience to the table. And while there definitely aren’t many Mitch Morse or Justin Britt types with years of experience, there are quite a few players with game time on their resume.
Mizzou Offensive Line Returning Production (2020)
Mizzou Offensive Line Returning Production (2013)
The key thing that stands out on first glance here is that the 2020 Tigers actually have more returning production in terms of player quantity. Of the returning linemen, nine have played in Division I games, and five have started in the trenches at some point. Starting is no complete assurance of quality, but you can only get starts if there’s some proof that you’re worthy of playing, especially in the SEC.
But the numbers are deceiving because the totals still tilt toward 2013. The seven returning linemen that year totaled 135 games played to 2020’s 125 games. Even more defined, the 2013 returnees had a total of 75 combined starts to the 2020 team’s 55 starts. That difference becomes even more startling when you consider that Michael Maietti makes up 56 percent of those returning starts.
But the biggest thing the 2013 line might have over 2020 (and all the lines since)? It’s chemistry. It’s something I hadn’t considered when I first looked into the raw numbers, but I was reminded of it after just a few minutes of skimming the numbers — four of the five starters in 2013 had already been on a line together for a full year.
We like to say that the SEC is won in the trenches, what with the big, bruising lineman that often do battle and make way for the flashier talents. But the more I watch football, the more I see line play as a sort of dance. albeit a brutal one. The initial movements are all carefully choreographed, followed by an ebb-and-flow that falls in line with how your partners are reacting to the chaos around them. Think about dancing with your freshman homecoming date vs. dancing with your spouse or significant other at a wedding? Which was smoother? The same principle applies with linemen, and that sort of chemistry is rare with injuries and roster reshuffling.
For how rare it was, though, it was pretty evident for the 2013 Tigers. Back in 2016, Dave Matter did a sort of oral history on the 2013 line by speaking with the five starters. The whole thing is a worthwhile read, especially in how the players dissect their previous year’s struggles. One quote from Max Copeland speaks volumes to how the group’s dynamic came pre-packaged.
“Britt was our technical leader. He was such a technician, we deferred to the way he did things. Mitch was the level-headed leader. He had a sense of calm that was reassuring for the rest of us. Evan was our lighthearted leader. He kept it fun. Connor, he was hungry to be great. He had the least experience, but he didn’t take a single opportunity for granted. And I’d like to think of myself as the intensity leader.”
Yeah, bloody-nose-every-game guy. I think it’s safe to say you were the intensity leader. Does it help that four of the five linemen were future NFLers? Obviously. But their chemistry, and ability to let McGovern in on it, was also a tool used to sharpen all of their skills. The 2013 line was a crucible that molded the five of them into the sort of line that would anchor a Top Five team in the country.
So what’s the formula for getting another line like 2013? The harsh truth of the matter is: there probably isn’t one. Line construction is a maddening mixture of talent scouting, recruiting, weight room training, injury luck, depth and good-old-fashioned grit. There’s no telling when a guy with nine starts under his belt like Connor McGovern will turn into an NFL-caliber lineman. You can’t predict walk-ons like Max Copeland becoming integral to the success of the offense. And you certainly can’t predict stars like Justin Britt, Evan Boehm and Mitch Morse staying healthy for the whole of a season.
In reality, you just have to hope the stars align. You can stack your line with experience — that definitely seems to help — but you also have to hope some sort of alchemy takes place that turns the whole into something greater than the sum of its parts. It may never look as good as 2013, but what a standard to shoot for, huh?