Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
As I’ve mentioned before, I think there’s a lack of respect for Missouri among those making predictions for the 2012 Southeastern Conference. There are several reasons, but today we’ll explore the biggest, literally and figuratively.
Those who think Mizzou will struggle in the SEC already know about James Franklin. I doubt they’re overlooking E. J. Gaines, and they might even get how strong MU’s linebacking corps is. But the offensive line, and specifically Elvis Fisher, is Missouri’s secret weapon. It’s hard to fathom a guy that large (6-foot-5, 295 pounds) named Elvis is going to sneak up on Georgia and South Carolina, but there it is.
Offensive tackle Elvis Fisher is back after missing last season with a knee injury.
Missouri will be better than people think.
It all starts at left tackle with Fisher on the offensive line. And, ironically, even some Mizzou fans may have forgotten about Fisher. A two-time all-conference performer who was a freshman All-American, Fisher lost his senior year to injury but, thanks to a hardship ruling from the NCAA, will be back to play this season. And it cannot be overstated what good news this is. Experience? He has 40 starts and has played in bowl games and against some of the roughest customers on defensive lines across the country. With some of the stud defensive linemen the SEC will throw the Tigers’ way, having him in practice every day makes everyone better, and having him on the line on Saturdays will be a major boost to the offense in every way possible. Fisher is a character guy who doesn’t take plays off.
Anthony Gatti has roomed with Fisher and had that leadership in his ear for a couple of years now, and whether he’s just bench strength behind Fisher or contributes elsewhere on the line, watch for big things from Gatti in years to come. He’ll be pushed by redshirt freshman Michael Boddie, another talented tough guy.
Moving in a step, it looks like well-traveled Travis Ruth will anchor the left guard slot. When injuries put the line in flux last season, Ruth stepped in and started seven games at center, playing very well in the middle. Now back in his natural position, he’s another experienced senior. His smarts aren’t limited to football — the Jefferson City Jay is a three-time first team Academic All-Big 12 selection.
Max Copeland is a high amps former walk-on who practices every day as if it’s his final day on earth, and is a blast to watch — if you don’t have to line up against him. Copeland and redshirt frosh Connor McGovern give the Tigers some insurance behind Ruth. McGovern, the best high school player in the state of North Dakota his senior year, is the future of the position but also has Ruth’s ability to move up and down the line if need be.
The center position at Mizzou has a grand tradition. Nearly all the snaps in the 11 seasons under Gary Pinkel at MU have come from three guys but sophomore Mitch Morse looks ready to step into those big shoes. He saw time in all 13 games last year, but really made his move during spring ball this year as he took over the starting center position and was selected most improved offensive lineman. If for some reason he doesn’t work out, there are several young prospects in the wings.
Brad McNulty was a pancake blocking road grader in high school, Robert Luce has an extra year’s experience on the other backups and Mitch Hall is a walk-on who’s worked his fanny off in the weight room and may also contribute as long snapper.
Speaking of the weight room, starting right guard Jack Meiners is another weight room demon with lifting records in Pat Ivey’s torture chamber to prove it. He’s another experienced hand, too, with 38 games played so far, including some very rare appearances as a true freshman (Pinkel almost never plays freshmen on the O-line.) Junior Mark Hill has been around a while and has overcome some health issues. The former Branson Pirate is absolutely qualified to step in and start if he has to. Nick Demien may be third on the depth chart but he’s going to be very hard to keep off the field and has a very bright future ahead of him. Big freshman Kyle Starke also gives some quality depth at the position.
On the right tackle slot, junior Justin Britt gets the starting nod. He filled in nicely for Fisher on the left side and even caught a pass against Kansas (Although I wouldn’t look for a lot of pass plays involving the right guard, at least he didn’t drop it.) At 300 pounds, he’s the biggest of the Tiger starting linemen. There’s going to be fierce competition behind him with Taylor Chappell and 325-pound monster Chris Freeman. For now, Chappell’s ahead as he has more experience and is much more polished, but Freeman impressed me with his effort in the Black and Gold game. I’d not be the least bit surprised to see both starting for the Tigers in the years to come.
On the defensive side of the ball, Lee’s Summit’s Evan Boehm is a very exciting recruiting catch for Mizzou. One of the best high school linemen in the nation, Boehm may be another rare find who breaks the Pinkel tradition of redshirting offensive linemen as a matter of course.
Jordan Williams was also heavily recruited and could have chosen among some of the best schools in the nation but like others from Ryan High School (Denton,Texas) he’s chosen Mizzou. That he’s 270 before he starts a college weight program is exciting, and he’s a particularly skilled run blocker.
Penn State is Linebacker U. Southern California and Oklahoma State have produced a stable of tailback superstars. And offensive linemen from Michigan and Texas litter NFL rosters.
In a like fashion, few schools in the nation have produced a group of tight ends like Missouri in recent years. Missouri alum Kellen Winslow is known as football’s best ever tight end, college or pro, having played eight seasons for the San Diego Chargers after his college career at Mizzou. In the last decade or so guys like Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman and Michael Egnew have caused some to dub Missouri “Tight End U.” And the next in line is Eric Waters. After waiting patiently behind Egnew, Waters looks ready to take his place in the line of tight end stars in the black and gold. He’s a big tough guy who can run routes, make catches and do great things with the ball once he’s caught it. He can also block, which could be even more key in the new SEC schedule the Tigers face.
Former Baylor Bear Steve Drain backs up Waters, though he’s certainly capable would be a big drop off. So, it’s little surprise that this position was a priority in recruiting, netting the Tigers two outstanding prospects. The first, Sean Culkin, is encouraging in several ways. Not only is he a strong receiver with good hands and serious speed for a TE, he’s also a sign that the Tigers can recruit in Florida, which will be of immeasurable importance to compete in the SEC. Brandon Holiefield is another new freshman tight end. His name may not ring a bell — he was added after National Letter of Intent Signing Day — he’s another stud athlete who played basketball and hit 6-feet-11-inches in the high jump. And oh, by the way, he’s also from Florida.
Let’s not forget a big reason why Mizzou’s had such offensive line talent and is recruiting so well. A tip of the a cap toward coaches Josh Henson (a fellow Okie) and Bruce Walker, one of several original members of Pinkel’s staff that came from Toledo way back when. The consistency of assistant coaching at Mizzou is absolutely a major reason this program looks so different than it did when we said goodbye to Larry Smith after the 2000 season.