Tyler Howell’s journey to Missouri wasn’t a straight line.
Howell, a Bonner Springs graduate, spent two seasons at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kan., and was expected to bolster the Tigers’ offensive line last season.
Academic issues prevented Howell from enrolling last August.
“It was heartbreaking, but I talked to (former) coach (Gary) Pinkel a few times, and he kept me motivated,” Howell said. “They kept recruiting me, so nothing really changed. They were definitely disappointed, but I felt obligated that eventually I had to get my stuff together.”
The Tigers certainly could have used Howell — a 6-foot-8, 305-pound junior who blocks out the sun — but now he’ll become the anchor of the rebuilt offensive line, a unit whose struggles last season undermined Mizzou’s offense.
Quarterback Maty Mauk’s eight-game suspension didn’t help, but there wasn’t much to be done with a crumbling foundation.
Two of the Tigers’ starters from last season — Lee’s Summit West graduate Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern — are locks to be selected later this month during the NFL draft, but the line’s sum didn’t equal the value of its parts.
Missouri deployed one of the worst offenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision, ranking 127th among 128 teams in scoring offense and 125th in total offense.
The offensive line checked in 101st in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders’ advanced metrics.
“It stung a lot, but it probably formed the basis of what this offensive line will be this year,” sophomore Kevin Pendleton said. “We have that feeling in the back of our minds and that taste in the back of my mouth. We don’t ever want to go through that again.”
Those struggles now serve as fuel.
“We knew we were one of the reasons we didn’t have a high level of success last year, but we’re taking on the challenge,” sophomore Paul Adams said. “It’s a new offensive line here at Mizzou.”
One that will be on public display for the first time during the annual Black and Gold Spring Game at 5 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
As a group, the offensive line dedicated itself to building strength during the offseason program and has focused on improving its collective footwork this spring.
“We have to turn up the volume with how we played and play a little more vicious,” Adams said.
Adams, Pendleton and junior Alec Abeln, the only returning players with SEC experience, have emerged as leaders for the group that’s dealt with a severe numbers crunch this spring.
Missouri spent most of the spring with only eight scholarship linemen available, including defensive line convert Tyrell Jacobs.
Andy Bauer retired because of complications from a hip injury and Malik Cuellar quit the team, while Blue Valley graduate Clay Rhodes remains away for personal reasons (and may not return) and junior Nate Crawford was sidelined by back surgery.
“We’ve been in a three-man weave every once in a while,” new offensive line coach Glen Elarbee said. “It’s been interesting, but the good thing is that guys are getting a lot of reps. That’s important to learn. When you don’t have a lot of experience, the more reps you get, the better you get at what you’re trying to do.”
There’s another silver lining.
“You won’t see an offensive lineman getting tired for Mizzou next season, because with all the reps we are getting, we’ll be in great shape,” said Pendleton, a Lee’s Summit West grad. “We’ve got a new mindset. We aren’t going to lose on the fourth-and-1 anymore. Everything is on us. We are truly putting it on the line. It’s up to us whether we win the game or win that yard.”
Two walk-ons — junior Adam Ploudre and sophomore Tommy Grossman, both in St. Louis — have bailed out Mizzou this spring.
“There’s definitely a lot of competition,” redshirt freshman A.J. Harris from Blue Valley said. “That’s something (they) harp on us about every day — compete, compete, compete. They’re pushing us to compete and play fast every single snap and make sure we play hard every down. We may not always have a great matchup, but we’re always going to compete.”
Missouri will add two more linemen — incoming freshmen Tre’vour Simms and Trystan Castillo — in June, but head coach Barry Odom may not be done recruiting for 2016 if there’s someone available who can help.
Black and Gold spring game
When: 5 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium
TV: SEC Network
Cost: Free admission, but fans are encouraged to bring canned good for the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri
Additional details: Gates 1 and 4E, which are located on the north and east sides, will open at 4 p.m., and the first 5,000 fans will receive a free Mizzou football T-shirt. Seating is open, and the parking lots open at 9 a.m. Tailgating is encouraged. After the game, there will be a meet-and-greet/autograph session on the field with players and coaches. The Tiger Team Store will conduct a special sale from 9 a.m.-8 p.m., including a Mizzou Athletics equipment surplus sale and tent sale.
Other activities: Senior football players will conduct a kids football clinic for the local Big Brothers/Big Sisters chapter before the scrimmage. Missouri tennis also plays Mississippi at noon at the Mizzou Tennis Complex, while the Tigers baseball team plays LSU at 2 p.m. at Taylor Stadium. The projected pitching matchup is Mizzou ace Tanner Houck against Lee’s Summit West graduate Alex Lange.