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Missouri Football Spring Preview: Who steps up on the offensive line?

As spring football practices begin, we're looking at the Missouri offensive line.

Is Kevin Pendleton, and the rest of Mizzou's young line, ready to step up?
Is Kevin Pendleton, and the rest of Mizzou's young line, ready to step up?

Offensive Line

Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshman Class of 2016
Malik Cuellar 6'5 295 Alec Abeln (R) 6'3 290 Paul Adams (R) 6'6 290 A.J. Harris (R) 6'3 297 Trystan Castillo 6'4 285
Nate Crawford (R) 6'5 290 Sam Bailey (R) 6'5 265 Tanner Owen (R) 6'6 265 Tre'Vour Simms 6'3 315
Clay Rhodes (R) 6'5 280 Andy Bauer (R) 6'3 310
Tyler Howell 6'9 305 Kevin Pendleton (R) 6'4 295
Gone:

Connor McGovern, Brad McNulty, Evan Boehm, Mitch L. Hall, Taylor Chappell,

Returning Starters:

Nate Crawford (8 starts), Alec Abeln (3 starts)

Other Returning:

Kevin Pendleton, Malik Cuellar, Clay Rhodes, Paul Adams, Sam Bailey, Andy Bauer, AJ Harris, Tanner Owen

Newcomers:

Trystan Castillo, Tre’Vour Simms, Early Enrollees: None

Recap: Mizzou is replacing not only its offensive line coach, but also five seniors from last year’s two deep. They were partial reason for Missouri’s historically bad offense, but that alone doesn’t guarantee significant improvement. Let’s hope starts and experience aren’t the be all end all for predicting how offensive lines perform.

Missouri returns just two players who started last year -- juniors Nate Crawford and Alec Abeln -- and ideally they form the core of Mizzou’s interior along with sophomore Kevin Pendleton, who I was high on during fall camp last year.

Predictions: A lot of changes. Glen Elarbee has already casually thrown out a lineup that doesn’t include the sole senior on the offensive line, left tackle Malik Cuellar. Whether that was intentional or not is unclear but he did mention some names recently, specifically January enrollee Tyler Howell.

One cool thing that could happen: AJ Harris is so impressive at center that it allows Alec Abeln to play guard, which bumps Nate Crawford back out to tackle. If just one or two guys can step up and lock down a position, look how easy it is to have a positive ripple effect.

Here are my predictions. We'll find out how accurate they are during today's first practice.

Left Tackle Left Guard Center Right Guard Right Tackle
Tyler Howell 6'9, 305 Nate Crawford (R) 6'5, 290 Alec Abeln (R) 6'3, 290 Kevin Pendleton (R) 6'4, 295 Paul Adams (R) 6'6, 290
Malik Cuellar 6'5, 300 Andy Bauer (R) 6'3, 310 A.J. Harris (R) 6'3, 297 Tre'Vour Simms 6'3 315 Clay Rhodes (R) 6'5, 280
Tanner Own (R) 6'6, 295 Trystan Castillo 6'4 285

And of course, this is all if Mizzou doesn’t sign any new lineman in the next few months.

What to Watch: Glen Elarbee is undertaking a mammoth task. A unit that was unable to carve out any kind of consistency in either the run or pass blocking lost five seniors. Elarbee's job may be made easier by Josh Heupel’s changes, but pace and scheme can only disguise so much. Does Elarbee move away from Gary Pinkel’s approach to playing the five best offensive lineman regardless of position or does he focus on specific positions and recruit with that in mind? (Hint: I think it's the latter. I’ve already noticed somewhat of a change with their recruiting targets.)

Dan Keegan: A rallying cry for fans of struggling professional sports team is for someone to "blow it up!" Wholesale front office, roster, or playing time changes are the lazy fan’s dream solution and quick fix. With college sports, the limits of resources and rosters and the benefits of stability mean "blow it up!" is almost never the answer.

For Missouri football, however, 2015’s offensive line was so disappointing alongside the rest of the offensive upheaval that new coach Barry Odom was indeed left with only one real solution: blow it up. Changes started at the top, as position coach AJ Ricker was relieved following consecutive seasons in which his charges regressed.

Ricker's successor, Glen Elarbee, has said that the position battles are wide open in the spring until the staff "sees guys in pads." This wholesale change makes sense; the only thing guaranteed for Missouri’s O-line is that nothing is guaranteed. The big uglies are so green in 2016 that fans will have to expect growing pains, but the commitment to blowing it up provides hope for a quick turnaround

Bill C.: The offensive line will determine Missouri's fate this year. I realize there are other questions to answer, especially on offense. But you can certainly talk yourself into Drew Lock getting better with experience and a deeper, less green receiving corps. And you can talk yourself into the running back position creating a couple of solid options. But absolutely none of that matters if a blown-up offensive line doesn't improve.

The options are indeed there, even if the depth perhaps is not. AJ Harris was a four-star recruit, and his emergence would be both welcome and semi-realistic. Kevin Pendleton and Paul Adams appeared to be working their way into the rotation as the season came to a close. Crawford and Abeln were already in the rotation. Tyler Howell is huge and well-regarded. Andy Bauer is a former four-star kid and could still technically prove it if the injury bug stops biting. Et cetera. You can find five good players in there. But until Missouri actually does, every other problem on the team takes a back seat.

No pressure, Glen Elarbee!