Roughly a year ago, Nate Crawford acquiesced.
From the moment he arrived on campus in 2013, Missouri’s coaches tried to convince Crawford — a Pensacola, Fla., native who picked the Tigers ahead of Mississippi State, Kentucky, Louisville and others — to change positions.
“Coach Kool (defensive-line coach Craig Kuligowski) and coach (Josh) Henson came to me and said, ‘Hey, you’ll be a good defensive lineman, but we think you’ll be a great offensive tackle,’” Crawford said. “They encouraged me to come over and put my all into it, but I was stubborn for a minute. After a year, I agreed to switch over and now I’m glad I made that change.”
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It was around the start of camp last season that Crawford chose to play offensive line for the first time.
Now a redshirt sophomore, he sits atop the Tigers’ depth chart as the presumptive starter at right tackle.
“The one thing I love about Nate is he stays hungry 24-7,” MU offensive-line coach A.J. Ricker said. “He eats everything up. He goes above and beyond film study. He wants to be great. I’m not saying other guys aren’t like that, but it’s super important to the kid.”
Crawford is thrilled with the progress he’s made in the last 12 months.
“I had never done it before, but my coaches told me that if I’m going to do it to put all my effort into it,” Crawford said. “That’s what I did, and I worked and worked and worked. It wasn’t easy at all. It took a lot of hard work and a lot of sweat and a lot of tears. There were a lot of gut-checks to get where I’m at, but by no means am I where I need to be.”
He said learning to kick slide, the technique tackles use to widen out an edge-rusher’s arc to the quarterback, was the most difficult part of the transition.
“It’s a very technical position down to the last detail of where your toe hits, so it’s a lot to learn,” Crawford said. “It’s not like defense, where you just go off with brute strength and everything. You’ve got to have technique and you’ve got to be patient.”
Crawford’s biggest challenge for the right-tackle job is being mounted by fellow sophomore Clay Rhodes, a Blue Valley graduate.
“We worked with them a lot and they both were always asking (senior center) Evan (Boehm) and me for help,” senior left tackle Connor McGovern said. “Once the younger guys left the field, we would stay back and make sure they got really specific help at what they needed, because we knew that both were going to be such a vital part of the offense.”
McGovern said that extra work helped Crawford and Rhodes avoid the “summer dip,” when some players regress between spring practice and summer camp.
Instead, that dedication means the battle for the No. 1 right-tackle spot rages on as the first preseason scrimmage approaches Saturday.
“We’re making each other better and helping each other out,” Rhodes said. “It’s not a bad competition. It’s friendly, and we’re both making each other better. … This offseason and during the summer, Nate and I were doing everything together. We’re making each other better with extra film, extra footwork, extra technique, extra everything. We’ve gotten really close.”
Rhodes said he also studied film of Justin Britt and Mitch Morse, who were Missouri’s last two starting left tackles and second-round selections in the NFL Draft.
“I just wanted to see what they did that made them so good and am trying to apply that into my game,” Rhodes said.
It’s helped Rhodes make an impressive ascendance right along with Crawford.
“Crawford and Rhodes, every time the ones go, they’re constantly rotating just to see who’s going to take that over …,” Ricker said. “They’re both doing good. Crawford’s really taken this thing to another level, but so has Clay. Clay’s working hard and getting there.”