Despite being beset with injuries in 2011, Missouri's offensive line still came together sufficiently to help the Tigers lead the conference in rushing. Now, with three seniors from that group having moved on, let's take a look at what the offensive line will look like heading into 2012 fall camp.
Last season's injuries resulted in some positives for Missouri's offensive line for this year. For one, it means that Missouri returns four offensive linemen with considerable starting experience instead of one or two. Sixth-year senior Elvis Fisher returns for his fourth year as the starter at left tackle. He'll anchor the line and protect James Franklin's back side. Fisher's return will allow junior Justin Britt, who started every game last season at left tackle, to move to the right side, where he will line up outside of senior Jack Meiners, who started seven games at left guard last season, after playing mostly right tackle the previous two seasons. Those two players, Britt and Meiners, give Missouri a right side of the offensive line that is talented, experienced, and very good.
Senior Travis Ruth will open fall camp as the starting left guard, after having started seven games last season at center. Ruth has played both center and guard during his time at Missouri. The issue with Ruth is remaining healthy. He's never really demonstrated that he can remain healthy for an extended period of time. For that reason, the Tigers must identify a starter-quality back-up behind Ruth, and have a ready contingency plan.
Heading into fall camp, the Tigers fifth starter up front is sophomore center Mitch Morse. Morse solidified himself as the starter during the spring.
"He's athletic, he's smart, he's got good size," said Coach Pinkel, talking about Mitch Morse playing the center position. "He's probably one of the taller centers that we've had in there. He's a very, very bright guy……………………………….. You know, he's developed into a really good player."
Projected OL Depth
In addition to Fisher, four other offensive linemen missed most or all of spring ball, including Ruth, Gatti, Hill, and McGovern. All are expected to be ready to play this fall, which is quite a boost to the Tigers' depth.
Three young players, including tackles Taylor Chappell and Chris Freeman, and guard/center Brad McNulty each saw plenty of action this spring with both the first and second team offense. The experience of having those first-team reps is one of the things that separates these three players from among the several players competing for a spot on Missouri's two-deep.
In addition, the return of Anthony Gatti and Mark Hill to action this fall provides Missouri with a pair of players who spent time on the two deep and saw game action last season.
In addition to those five very strong candidates, there are several other linemen who will add depth to the competition for spots on the two deep during fall camp, including Max Copeland, Nick Demien, Conner McGovern, Mike Boddie, and true freshmen Evan Boehm and Jordan Williams. Copeland continues to outperform expectations, and McGovern is catching up after coming off of an injury. For Demien and Boddie, it's their time to make a move up the Depth Chart. I'm looking forward to seeing Boehm on the practice field. The big freshman is another one who is expected to mount a serious challenge for playing time this year.
Barring injury, I expect the starters to retain their spots during camp. The closer competition will be for the second team spots. Gatti and Hill have the game experience, but both are coming off of injuries. Chappell, Freeman, and McNulty are each coming off of strong spring showings.
Job one for the coaching staff is to establish the five best offensive linemen and mold them into a cohesive unit. Then, in addition to getting as many offensive linemen as possible ready to play, the staff will also be about the business of identifying their sixth, seventh, and eighth best offensive linemen, and working those players into the positions that they will be expected to play should one of the starters have to come out.
I think we'll see the staff taking a long look at McNulty at both center and guard. That same statement probably also applies to Boehm. And, with Gatti back in the mix, in addition to Chappell and Freeman, there's quality competition at the tackle positions.
If the Tigers can remain relatively healthy throughout the 2012 season, I think they can be pretty good up front.