Mizzou’s young offensive line steps up in Fisher’s absence

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

There was one moment in Missouri’s loss to Georgia that had to break the hearts of Tiger fans. In the second quarter, senior offensive lineman Elvis Fisher collapsed to the turf and had to be helped off. After a long career at Mizzou, Fisher appeared to be done for when he lost last season to a knee injury. However a hardship ruling from the NCAA granted him an extra season. It was a special thing, seeing him get the chance he richly deserved to have a senior season. It has been great for the young offensive linemen to have him around. He was more than just the captain of the linemen, he was almost a father figure, a true coach on the field. Max Copeland, the Tigers outspoken guard, looked to be on the verge of tears as he talked about how awful he felt for Elvis. “Seeing my brother on the ground like that, it was worse than losing the game.” And believe me, this is a guy who hates to lose.

We learned later this week that Fisher might not be lost for the season, after all. But the injury will cost him several weeks, and robs him of the senior season of which he’d dreamed. But the importance of Fisher goes beyond his play on the field on Saturday. The bunch that will line up in front of quarterback James Franklin against Arizona State this weekend is awfully young and inexperienced. Mitch Morse is a sophomore with two starts. Justin Britt is now the old vet, starting all of last season at left tackle and now starting on the right side. The Max Copeland story of walk-on to starter is an inspiration, but he’s still very inexperienced. Brad McNulty is a redshirt freshman and will get his first start this Saturday. And of course, Evan Boehm is the true rarity on a Gary Pinkel team — a true freshman starting on the offensive line.

Those five youngsters are, unless there’s a miracle healing and and senior offensive lineman Jack Meiners comes back quicker than expected, your Missouri Tigers offensive line. But we learned last weekend that there’s more to these guys than youth. Copeland once explained to me how a lineman has to know what all four of his linemates are doing on each play. It makes sense, you don’t want guys crashing into one another, but it means an awful lot of knowledge, almost having to know five times as much as you might think for every play in a fairly complicated offense. So, when Fisher went down, they were ready. McNulty came off the bench to play center, and after starting at center, Morse moved out to tackle. Britt went from right tackle to the left side, where Fisher had been playing.

But everyone made the move and played their new positions without a hitch, against one of the best defensive lines in all of college football. There’s a toughness, a dedication to purpose, in this bunch of linemen. Some is just personal character. A lot of it is great coaching, and the way they’ve handled one injury after another and kept right on doing their jobs is a major tribute to Bruce Walker and Josh Henson, the offensive line coaches in a staff of assistants under Pinkel that frankly are to coaching what Georgia is to defensive line play — among the elite few in the nation.

But that character, that drive, that dedication, also comes from their time with Fisher. Talking with guys like McNulty and Britt about Fisher is like talking with a small child about Santa, There’s a level of respect, admiration, and yes love they all hold for their leader that cannot be shaken, and it’s well-earned. Every player on the Missouri offensive line is a better football player for having spent time learning from and with Fisher. And more than that, they’re better men. I don’t know what career path Fisher has in mind, but there is a “stuff” that the very best coaches are made of, and Fisher has it in spades. Copeland said it best — small wonder, there’s little he can’t say best — when he said “I’d ride into battle with him anytime.”

When you say “intelligent football player” some might snicker. Others might assume we’re talking about a quarterback, or free safety. The brutes who line up in the trenches, the guys who can bench press a Volvo and spend their days beating the daylights out of one another, you don’t expect to find a lot of functioning brain cells down that way.

You’d be surprised. If you thought linemen were just big tough guys who went out and hit the guy across from them, you couldn’t be more wrong. These are intelligent guys. Copeland’s a physics major, McNulty’s studying psychology. Britt was on the Academic All-Big 12 second team last season, and Morse was first team Academic All-Conference.

So, when someone refers to the brains behind the Mizzou Tigers football team, don’t limit it to the guy calling the plays. There’s a lot of smarts in the offensive line, too.

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