A time of transition

Perhaps the biggest question mark before the season was the performance of a reshaped offensive line, which looked to include two redshirt freshmen as starters. That has changed a bit as we reach the halfway point of the season, but the continued growth of the line has created a running game that is more multiple than it has been in years past.

Coach Gary Pinkel demands a lot from his players, but he does have a little flexibility in some situations. Inexperience is one of those areas, an excuse that could have been applied to the Missouri offensive line when it struggled from time to time early this season.

That excuse is no longer applicable, Pinkel said Monday.

"I think the inexperience factor is completely over with now," Pinkel said. "We don't really need to discuss the youth of our offensive line any more. We played some very good football teams, some very good defenses. We expect to play well now, and we have to."

Two of the more experienced members of the group, senior tackle Scott Paffrath and junior guard Tony Palmer, said the line had its best performance of the season against Texas on Saturday.

"As a unit, it probably was, overall," Paffrath said. "I think we out-physicalled Texas. We're playing a lot more physical than we probably ever have since these coaches have been here."

"Yeah, definitely," Palmer said. "I think this past week was definitely the most physical that we've been."

Of course, players on both sides of the line of scrimmage have to be physical every play, lest they injure themselves or, worse, are injured by an opponent. Playing physical is a mindset, one that comes with experience and a familiarity of your teammates.

"It's just your preparation, basically," Palmer said. "The way you prepare going into the game and the confidence you go in with plays a big role in the way that you perform."

Growing in confidence has been an ongoing affair, but it seemed to peak against the Longhorns. To Pinkel, the line played a strong fundamental game, even though it allowed two sacks on the afternoon.

"There was a definite difference in last week's game," Pinkel said. "You can see maturity. We had no problems (against Texas), as far as line of scrimmage problems, with noise, checks…there was nothing."

Two redshirt freshmen, center Adam Spieker and tackle Tyler Luellen, faced the tall task of replacing graduated seniors A.J. Ricker and Rob Droege as the season opened. Luellen lost his starting job to Tony Clinker a few weeks ago, but both players continue to see a lot of playing time. Their maturation has created greater depth at positions where depth can mean all the difference.

"It takes a little while when you got young guys you're working with," Paffrath said. "It takes a while to get a feel for things. We were definitely in a groove once Big 12 started."

Paffrath said Spieker is learning how to use his size and strength more to his advantage. His ability to move on when things do not go his way, another earmark of maturity, has also grown.

"He tends to sometimes let a bad play get to him, but it's something he has learned to overcome now," Paffrath said. "You could really see it at Texas; he was playing well and could knock the other guy off the ball."

With more than a year in the program behind them, Spieker and Luellen are expected to know how to prepare for their opponents, a task that is particularly important for the offensive line.

"If you get out there and you don't know what's going on, you're in big trouble and you're gonna get somebody else in trouble in the backfield," Paffrath said. "You definitely have to be smart."

Adapting to protect the needs of a mobile quarterback is another difficult task. Although having junior QB Brad Smith behind you might decrease the number of sacks you allow, Palmer said, you always have to be aware of where Smith is.

"You never know what Brad's gonna do," Palmer said. "He's so elusive. You don't know if he's still in the pocket, if he ran out of the pocket or what. If you see the defensive linemen moving either way, you know he's probably scrambling somewhere. You just gotta keep moving."

Another concern is the tailback coming out of the backfield. Junior Damien Nash has received the majority of the carries this season, but freshman Marcus Woods saw a lot of time against Texas, giving Nash, whose knee was drained last week, some time to rest. The two backs have a similar running style, but Woods brings a shiftiness that linemen on both sides of the ball must respect.

"It really doesn't affect anything you do," Palmer said. "It's the same stuff that you have to make sure you take care of. You take care of your assignment and the back has an either/or read that he can go off of. You take care of your man and everything takes care of itself."

Woods said opposing defenses have to be aware of cutbacks when he is on the field, as he looks for small holes to squeeze through as quickly as possible. Nash said it is "always good to have two backs, to have somebody to complement you."

It never hurts to have large men opening holes for you, either. Pinkel said the line's performance against Texas could push it over the top as conference play rolls on.

"I see things like that and holding up against a really good defensive line like Texas has," Pinkel said. "I think they get a little bit of confidence."

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