Missouri believes it has honed in on the problem that plagued its offensive line at times last season.
There were dominant moments, like the second half at Texas A&M, but there also were wretched moments, like pretty much the entire Georgia game.
“I don’t really feel like we were consistent,” senior center Evan Boehm said. “We had a lot of things to work on. We got better for sure as the season went on and as the games went on.”
Boehm said penalties, especially the 24 false starts, were a thorn in the Tigers’ side, but that’s why the offseason has been about accountability.
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“We had too many false starts, way too many false starts,” Boehm said. “The thing is, that’s on us as an offensive line. We need to get better at that. We’re punishing ourselves now. If somebody sees somebody even flinch, we’re calling each other out.”
Missouri also needs to figure out a way to start the game with maximum intensity rather than building toward it, as was the tendency in 2014.
Details are important as Missouri concludes its first full year under offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who is excited about the competition he expects will unfold up front as fall camp opens Thursday.
“I think it’s going to be pretty heated,” Ricker said. “It’s going to be nice. You’ve got these young guys that are getting better. You’ve got some of the older guys, I’m not saying they’re complacent, but you’ve got some hungry young guys that are making some moves. That’s what it’s all about.”
Boehm seems entrenched at center, where he’s started the last two seasons.
As a freshman, Boehm, who made the Rimington Trophy preseason watch list as the nation’s best center, started at left guard and has made 40 consecutive starts for the Tigers. Pencil him in as the bedrock upon which the rest of the line is constructed.
Senior Connor McGovern has been a beast primarily at right guard the last two seasons, but he’ll be asked to shift to left tackle this season. He has big shoes to fill, replacing Mitch Morse, a second-round pick by the Chiefs.
McGovern, who recently set MU’s squat record, seems well equipped for the job even if he’d prefer to stay at right guard.
Things are less settled in the other three offensive line spots.
Senior Mitch Hall, a transfer from Mississippi, played in 13 games last season, including four starts at right guard when McGovern was bumped out to right tackle. He spent the bulk of 2013 backing up McGovern at guard, so he’s got plenty of experience and is penciled in as the starter.
That leaves senior Taylor Chappell, who started 10 games at right tackle last season, and senior Brad McNulty, who started 10 games at left guard, battling it out for the final interior line spot.
Entering camp, Chappell has the edge on the depth chart and he believes the hard knocks he absorbed after being thrust into the starting lineup last season will pay dividends in 2015.
“It was a great experience,” Chappell said. “I got to go against a lot of really great players. A lot of the guys I went against last year are about to be playing on Sundays next year, so it was a good experience. It was tough at times, but I felt I learned from it and it’s made me a better player.”
Both Chappell and McNulty struggled at times in pass protection last season, too often leaving quarterback Maty Mauk to fend for himself and forcing him to bail from the pocket.
“It’s hard back there for a quarterback if he’s getting hit right at the beginning of the game,” Chappell said. “It’s up to us to set the tone and make him feel safe in there, so he can deliver the ball downfield.”
The battle for the right tackle spot in spring football centered around sophomores Nate Crawford and Clay Rhodes, a Blue Valley graduate.
It was expected that Butler (Kan.) Community College tackle Tyler Howell would be in the mix during fall camp, but he failed to qualify academically and won’t be enrolled at MU this fall.
Another junior-college transfer, junior Malik Cuellar, could get a look at right tackle if Crawford, a converted defensive lineman who’s currently atop the depth chart, or Rhodes isn’t panning out.
“We definitely feel that we have more depth in the offensive line room this year,” Rhodes said.
Several redshirt freshman are on the three-deep roster entering fall camp — Paul Adams at left tackle, Andy Bauer at left guard, Sam Bailey at center, Lee’s Summit West graduate Kevin Pendleton at right guard and BV West graduate Michael Fairchild at right tackle.
It’s incredibly rare for a true freshman to make an impact on the offensive line, but if there’s a candidate for someone to pull a Boehm, it’s Blue Valley graduate A.J. Harris.
“He throws guys around out there like they’re getting kicked out of the bar,” MU associate head coach/quarterbacks coach Andy Hill said. “He’s got real long arms; he’s very aggressive; he’s a smart guy and very tough. Inside there, he played tackle for Blue Valley, but he’s a guy that can move some people.”
MISSOURI ROSTER: OFFENSIVE LINE
Returning players: Jordan Hill (6-2, 270, so.), Nick Monaghan (6-2, 245, sr.), Nate Crawford (6-5, 290, so.), Sam Bailey (6-4, 265, fr.), Alec Abeln (6-3, 290, so.), Connor McGovern (6-4, 300, sr.), Adam Roland (6-3, 315, fr.), Taylor Chappell (6-5, 305, sr.), Brad McNulty (6-4, 305, sr.), Paul Adams (6-6, 290, fr.), Will Johnson (6-2, 280, jr.), Adam Ploudre (6-4, 295, so.), Mike Fairchild (6-5, 295, fr.), Kevin Pendleton (6-4, 315, fr.), Clay Rhodes (6-5, 280, so.), Mitch Hall (6-5, 310, sr.), Evan Boehm (6-3, 320, sr.), Andy Bauer (6-3, 310, fr.)
Incoming players: Tanner Owen (6-5, 275, fr.), A.J. Harris (6-4, 285, fr.), Malik Cuellar (6-5, 300, jr.)
Projected starter: LT McGovern, LG Chappell, C Boehm, RG Hall, RT Cuellar
Analysis: The fact that Butler (Kan.) Community College tackle prospect Tyler Howell (6-9, 302) didn’t qualify academically is a significant blow to Missouri’s depth. He would have competed for a starting spot at right tackle or, failing that, at a guard spot. With a strong camp, he might have even allowed the Tigers to shuffle McGovern back to the right side at either guard (his preferred position) or tackle.
McGovern and Boehm form the nucleus of the MU offensive line. Both should push for all-conference honors as seniors. McGovern, who recently set Missouri’s squat record, is a beast and the next in a stellar line at left tackle that includes Elvis Fisher, Justin Britt and Mitch Morse.
Boehm has started every game of his college career, including the last two seasons at center. He’s poised to break into the NFL next season along with McGovern if he can put together the kind of season many inside and outside of the program expect.
Chappell and Hall each got loads of experience last season. They both had their struggles as did McNulty, but there’s still no substitute for those in-game snaps. Any of those three seniors could crack the starting lineup alongside Boehm and it wouldn’t qualify as a surprise.
Right tackle will be the most interesting spot to watch in camp. Cuellar made big strides during spring practice. He’s currently listed as McGovern’s backup at left tackle, but that could change if Crawford or Rhodes doesn’t grab the right tackle job by the throat.
Bauer and Pendleton have SEC-ready frames and also could push for playing time, while Adams and Fairchild are intriguing depth options. Don’t sleep on Harris, a true freshman from Blue Valley, either. It’s hard for freshmen to make an impact on the line, but he’s got a chance much as Boehm did in 2012.