COLUMBIA — Finding a new coach in July isn’t an easy task, but Missouri got lucky in plucking A.J. Ricker from the Illinois coaching staff.
He’s got a good handle on the Tigers’ system as a former standout under Pinkel combined with a passion for the program that makes him an ideal fit.
Several offensive linemen mentioned changes that Ricker already is making at Missouri. The details didn’t fit neatly into Tuesday’s story, so we’ll cover them here:
It starts with junior center Evan Boehm’s responsibilities.
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“I’m keeping my head forward this year, making the calls — the four-down, three-down calls, calling out the mikes (middle linebackers) and seeing if there’s any blitzes,” Boehm said. “Basically, I’m becoming the voice of the offensive line up there.”
Considering that Ricker was an All-Big 12 center during his Missouri career, it’s no surprise that he wants to center to be the line’s definitive voice. It also helps that Boehm is one of the best in the nation at his position.
Last year, Boehm made many calls, but other players also made calls too. It led to occasional confusion, which this change aims to end.
Of course, Ricker also took some responsibility off Boehm’s plate.
“The center used to look back and get the snap from the quarterback,” junior right guard Mitch L. Hall said. “Now, the guards are doing it.”
Missouri uses a silent snap count, but Boehm used to have peek between his legs to get the quarterback’s signal, bring his head up and survey the defense one last time then snap the ball.
Now, he’ll rely on Hall and left guard Anthony Gatti to watch for quarterback Maty Mauk’s signal. The guards will then alert Boehm, who no longer has to take his eyes off the defense.
Ricker also moved the guards and tackles off the ball more.
“We used to be the toes of the guard on the center’s heel, but now he moved us back a couple more inches off the heel,” Boehm said. “The rule is your helmet has to be crossing the center’s belt line. … We’re still experimenting that kind of stuff.”
That tweak seems to signal a more aggressive run-blocking approach.
“Lining up a foot back behind the center now, we’re not stepping back to give ground when we run block,” Hall said.
It should allow the Tigers’ offensive line to fire off the ball more and drive block rather than initially absorbing contact.
There have been some hiccups, mostly centering around terminology. Ricker uses different jargon to describe schemes, drills and other minutiae than Missouri has used in the past.
It’s a work in progress, but coach and players are steadily getting on the same page.
“He’s been doing really well getting up to speed,” junior right tackle Connor McGovern said. “He’s been very understanding of how we’re not going to know all of his terminology right away, because every O-line coach has different terminology. But he’s definitely done a great job, kind of using our terminology with his, so we get used to it both.”
Perhaps more important, the players already trust Ricker.
“There’s been a little learning curve,” Hall said. “A new coach is going to bring new drills and new techniques or alignment with them. We’re starting to pick that up and get all the drills down. Once we get past that initial learning curve, I feel like we’ll be good to go.”
And Ricker also believes in his players.
“These guys are dying to be good,” Ricker said. “I’m not having to motivate them. I told them, ‘The day I have to count loafs and motivate guys to play O-line is probably the day I’m going to quit coaching.’ But I have a great group of guys.”
So far, Ricker’s return to Missouri seems like a perfect match.
“You can definitely tell that this is his place and where he wants to be,” McGovern said. “… You can just tell by the way he acts — he’s serious, but he likes to have fun. You definitely get the vibe from him that he wants to make this O-line a great O-line, especially since it’s his alma mater and he wants to really take us to the next level.”