Barely a week has passed since sophomore Alec Abeln started working with Missouri’s first-string offense, but he impressed enough in limited reps at left guard to earn the starting nod Saturday against Southeast Missouri.
“It was a really fast move up, but at the same time I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well (and) at least earned the right to be in that conversation,” said Abeln, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound St. Louis native.
During the first two weeks of the Tigers’ fall camp, Abeln was seemingly locked into a backup role at center behind senior Evan Boehm.
Seniors Taylor Chappell and Brad McNulty had been vying for the starting left guard job for several months before Abeln joined after the first scrimmage on Aug. 15.
It wasn’t until the penultimate practice of fall camp that Abeln worked with the first team. Two days later, during the third and final scrimmage on Aug. 27, Abeln split first-team reps with Chappell.
“Friday afternoon, we watched the film,” Abeln said. Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker “met with each guy individually, and he just kind of told me that I won the starting job.”
That doesn’t mean the competition is finished. Chappell will still get in-game reps as Missouri winds toward conference play, but, at least for now, it’s Abeln’s spot to lose.
“He came in with a good base and just had to get all the other stuff caught up,” senior left tackle Connor McGovern said. “... His football IQ is definitely up there. You know he wanted it. … A good thing for him is he didn’t fall into the trap of thinking he was stuck behind Evan. He came in, he saw an opportunity and played as good as he could. Obviously, it was good enough to start.”
That has been Abeln’s focus since the spring. He knows that Ricker and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel always search for the top five offensive linemen and piece together the line from there.
“Obviously, Evan’s a great player, and being behind Evan was something that I knew, at least coming in, I was going to have that kind of guy ahead of me,” Abeln said. “But at the same time, they talk about how the best five guys are going to play no matter what, and I want to play.”
Abeln, who played tackle until his senior year at St. Louis University High School when he moved to center, spent the summer working on hand placement and becoming more physical at the point of attack.
His reward will be tucking between McGovern and Boehm in the trenches for Missouri’s starting offensive line.
“It’s a huge benefit for me,” Abeln said. “Between those two guys, there’s probably 70 starts between them, just loads of experience. Anybody will tell you that having good help is probably the most important thing about playing line, and I’ve got two of the best in this league.”
He didn’t get much time to celebrate the achievement of earning a starting job.
“After a win you have a 24-hour period, but we had a practice Saturday morning, so I had, like, a six-hour period to kind of feel good about it,” Abeln said.
He rang up his parents, former coaches and teachers and assorted other friends with the good news.
“That was pretty special to be able to say, ‘Hey, thank you,’” said Abeln, who hasn’t ruled out moving back to center next season. “I kind of enjoyed that. But at the same time, I had to log in to get ready for Saturday’s practice. Right now, it’s all SEMO.”
No. 24 Missouri plays Southeast Missouri at 3 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“I’m sure he’ll be a little bit nervous,” McGovern said. “I remember my first game I was nervous, but I was fortunate to be with some veteran guys just like he will be. There will be some nerves, but he’s got some confidence and he’s got the spark, so I think he’ll be just fine.”
McNulty now serves as Boehm’s backup.