COLUMBIA, Mo. • In search of prospects to back up Mitch Morse at center, Mizzou co-offensive line coach Bruce Walker saw something in Brad McNulty that made him a prime candidate.
"He had the ability to snap, first thing," Walker said. "If it's not rolling on the ground or sailing over the quarterback's head, that's a good start."
So it was that McNulty began his transformation from guard to center last spring, more than four years after he had last played the position as a freshman in high school.
Now a redshirt freshman for the Tigers, he faces the challenge of moving into a starting role Saturday against No. 1 Alabama after Morse suffered a knee injury against Vanderbilt.
McNulty made his first career start in the win over Arizona State and played extensively against Georgia, largely remaining calm, even when he lost a shoe for several plays against the Bulldogs.
The Crimson Tide will present new and bigger challenges. And McNulty doesn't hesitate to acknowledge that he may need some time to get comfortable.
"I'm a little nervous before every game," he said. "I don't like to show that I get nervous, but you definitely get butterflies before every game."
Walker apparently hasn't noticed. And he probably wouldn't want to hear that out of his new starter less than a week before the most notable game on the Mizzou schedule.
"The most impressive thing is he goes out there and doesn't get rattled, doesn't get saucer eyes," Walker said. "He just goes out and plays. If he screws something up, he doesn't take it too hard. That can be a real good thing."
When McNulty was asked to make the position switch, he saw the opportunity for more immediate playing time. With Morse also moving from guard, the Tigers were destined to become inexperienced at the position.
Morse has struggled with his snapping all season, and that basic element of the position has become a major focus in practice. McNulty recited some of the talking points this week: it's all about the timing and release point — directly behind your calf to keep the ball from floating.
Playing with quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, McNulty will be paired with a common practice partner because both have spent most of the season No. 2 at their positions.
"I've always been with Corbin on the second string so we know each other relatively well," McNulty said. "He knows when I snap the ball. He knows my stance. So, I think he's pretty comfortable back there."
Alabama is sure to try to make McNulty uncomfortable.
Against Georgia, he faced the Bulldogs' 358-pound nose tackle, John Jenkins. This time around he'll see a lot of Alabama tackle Jesse Williams, who reportedly has bench-pressed 600 pounds.
McNulty's response: "There are a lot of strong guys out there."
Walker said he believes that McNulty is more advanced than former Tigers Austin Wuebbels and Jayson Palmgren at the same age. However, Walker said McNulty does lack needed strength at this point.
"My middle school coach used to tell me something and I remember it to this day," McNulty said. "He said if someone's bigger than you, you're faster. If he's stronger, you're smarter. If he's faster, you're stronger. There's always some facet of your game you can get ahead in."
McNulty is not that far removed from being a dominant player. At Allen High School in Texas, he was a three-year starter and earned first-team Class 5A honors as a senior. He was credited with 143 pancake blocks and 107 knockdowns in three years.
That was as a guard. His responsibilities have increased dramatically.
"Center is definitely a leadership role," McNulty said. "You have to identify blitzes and make sure everybody knows what they're doing and what you have to do. You have to make the calls and help everybody out."
Walker probably never envisioned that he would be calling on his young center to start against Alabama when he switched positions six months ago.
Against Vanderbilt, McNulty failed to identify a couple of protections that were necessary. Against Alabama's defense, those details will be magnified. McNulty plans to be ready.
"Coaches have constantly told me, 'You're one (injury) away from playing so you have to be on your game 24-7,' " he said. "I've gone into every game with the mind-set that I'm going to play and play a lot."