You've come a long way, Adam Spieker.
Spieker, in his second year in the Missouri program, will see his first game action tomorrow against Arkansas State. Spieker is not backing up an established veteran; instead, he beat out senior Joe Gianino to win the starting center job this spring. He held onto the job through training camp and will be joined by fellow redshirt freshman Tyler Luellen, who starts at tackle.
It's been just 18 months since, in coach Gary Pinkel's estimation, Spieker was launching the ball all over the place, struggling with the basic center-quarterback connection. His improvement has been so rapid that Spieker now finds himself as one of the most important players on the roster.
"I think I'm doing better than in the spring," Spieker said.
That's quite an understatement. For the Missouri offense to be successful this season--particularly the revamped passing game--the Tigers will need a strong performance from all five starters on the line, but Spieker and Luellen, who anchor the two most important positions, must be particularly strong. Spieker, despite his previous struggles, must handle the all-important exchange, while Luellen is responsible for protecting the blind side of junior QB Brad Smith. Even if you do not consider who the two freshmen are replacing (former Tiger standouts A.J. Ricker and Rob Droege), the pressure on the players is high regardless.
Spieker said earlier this fall that going through the experience with another player in the same situation has been beneficiary.
"It kind of helps," Spieker said. "With two people, it's a little bit less pressure instead of just having one."
Pressure is exactly what the line hopes to reduce. The other three members of the line, senior T Scott Paffrath and guards Gianino and junior Tony Palmer, saw a handful of starts last season, but Palmer was the only player to start more than half of the games. All three have experience, a definite plus, but only Palmer has been projected as an everyday starter before this season.
Paffrath, who sprained the MCL in his right knee in the team's second scrimmage of the fall but is expected to start in the opener tomorrow, said he expects consistency out of the reformed line.
"I don't think we're gonna see a lot of let-downs," he said. "Guys work hard and we're like a family. I don't see us having a lot of problems this year."
Trust among the members of the line is just as important as God-given skill, so the line is at least halfway there. Still, Missouri employing two redshirts as starters on the offensive line--regardless of how talented they are--must raise eyebrows around the Big 12 Conference. But Paffrath said he expects the youngsters to perform well and fit right in.
"They're going to have a little bit of a learning curve because they're new to it, but the coaches expect a lot," Paffrath said. "With these coaches, if you listen to them and prepare right, you're gonna do things right. I think eventually, those guys are going to be as good as those guys that left last year."
Of course, if anybody on the line struggles, there are several players on the second team ready to step in. Sophomore Joel Clinger earned the title of "Most Improved Offensive Lineman" during the spring and fared well in Paffrath's stead this fall. Senior Tony Clinker also has seen action in 13 games over his first three seasons and is an option at tackle if Luellen struggles.
The line has the benefit of having Smith in the pocket, a talent that can make things happen regardless of the quality of the blocking or the strength of the opposing rush. Still, Smith needs time and consistency to make the expanded passing game successful. The rushing attack, bolstered by a pair of tailbacks--junior Damien Nash and freshman Marcus Woods--who are as shifty and hard to bring down as any pair in the conference, will likely be able to fight through whatever blocking they face, within reason.
Many observers assume the Missouri offense will be able to score, regardless of the situation or opponent, and point to the defense as the most vital aspect of the 2004 season. The strength of the offensive line, however, could make or break the Tigers' season.
"I know we're all working hard and we're trying to get as good as we can," Spieker said. "Hopefully we can make an impact."