Flourishing up Front
Through six games this season, the Missouri offensive line has lost exactly one game to injury. Left guard Max Copeland did not play against Indiana. Copeland played, but did not start, against Arkansas State. That means the five linemen who were atop the depth chart in week one have started 28 of a potential 30 games.
Contrast that with last year. The line technically lost just seven starts to injury last season, but that doesn't really begin to explain the issue.
"Compared to a year ago, we're significantly different," Gary Pinkel said. "We had gone through three centers. I don't even want to go there and discuss that. I think just the continuity of playing and playing together as a group, you're going to get better.
"Mitch Morse last year was at guard last year, he was at tackle, he was at center. Now he's settling down there, he's having a really, really good year. Connor McGovern didn't play a lot last year, but he's certainly getting better. Just the continuity of playing together, there's nothing like it. It doesn't mean you aren't going to have any mistakes, but the consistency at that position certainly helps the quarterback."
Morse started last year at center. He also played guard and tackle. Justin Britt played both tackle positions a year ago. At only one position did Missouri start the same player every year and that was a true freshman in Evan Boehm.
"Wherever the team needs you, you go without question," Morse said. "But it's definitely nice being at tackle. It feels comfortable for me and just being able to work every day in the offseason and during the season and camp with coach was just really nice."
Yes, the health has been a major boon for Missouri's front five, which currently paves the way for the SEC's second-best rushing game and third most productive offense overall. But there is a second reason for the Tigers' success up front and it's even simpler: The returning players are simply performing better than they were a year ago.
"We're not the same offensive line as what teams faced last year," Boehm said. "We watch film and we watch film of us last year and we're just like, 'Wow.' We're not the same offensive line as we were last year. Honestly, we're kind of like, 'That's really how we kind of played last year.' That's what happens when you have a season like what we had last year and how hungry you get during the offseason, how much you want to get better each and every day."
"(It's) both," Britt said. "We're taking that individual improvement and taking it to the group improvement."
"Yeah, I'd say that," McGovern said. "We all stepped our levels up. We were all healthy through spring ball and we had two-a-days which we all stayed healthy for. We've had a lot more practices being healthy than we've had before."
"I think having a whole year under our belts, we had four starters come back this year who started significantly last year," McGovern said. "Being able to have one fixed line that we practice with every day, that we work out with every day, it's just nice."
The anchor for the line has been Boehm. He moved from guard to center before spring football.
"It starts a lot with Evan," McGovern said. "He always has the final say on the calls...A lot of times if Evan has his head between his legs, it's Max and I who make the initial calls and then when Evan picks his head up, he makes the final call. Then the tackles are looking at edge pressure and safeties. Everyone has their part in the calls, but Evan's kind of like the judge. Once he puts that gavel down, that's the call and we just go with it."
In Missouri's first August scrimmage, Boehm had a rough day, spraying shotgun snaps all over the field. But during the season, at the risk of jinxing a guy throwing a perfect game, the snaps have more or less all been on target.
"Our offense is all about timing and all about if this hits then this is gonna hit and it all starts with the snap. It all starts with me," Boehm said. "I had a bet with my dad rolling and it's still rolling, it's still going. I've just got to be confident. You have to be confident in your snaps that they're going to be perfect every time."
They payoff for that bed? A new car. If Missouri is going to get where many now hope it can go, Boehm may need to be in that new ride after the season. While the first six games have provided some tests, the last six will not get any easier. Florida brings the SEC's top defense (and maybe the nation's best) to Columbia this weekend. And the Gators will have their sights set on Missouri's backup quarterback, Maty Mauk.
"Our ultimate goal is no one touches our quarterback," Morse said. "Last game we had a couple times when James got hit pretty hard and we definitely took it as an onus on ourselves. That can't happen. When James went down, it was definitely, 'All right, Maty's the next guy up and we have full confidence in him.' With a week of practice, if anyone touches Maty, there's something going wrong."
"I haven't really looked at it that way," Britt said. "If you start worrying about that, then you're worrying about the wrong things. Just go out there and do what you're supposed to do. Do your job and things will work out."
Thus far, they've worked out just fine for the Tigers' offensive line.