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Offensive linemen play starring role for Tigers

Offensive linemen play starring role for Tigers

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COLUMBIA, MO. • One does not become a "Big Man on Campus" playing the offensive line position in football.

Wait, take that back. One does become a big man on campus, just not in the figurative sense. No one would argue the individuals who make up the University of Missouri's offensive line are not, literally, big men on the Columbia campus. The starting five, from tackle to tackle, averages more than 300 pounds apiece. There are smaller strip malls in town.

Point is, none of the hole-busting behemoths will ever know what it's like to be a football hero, to see their name in headlines, to strike the Heisman pose. They have to dream differently.

"No one grows up and gets a blocking sled for Christmas," said 6-foot-7, 295-pound Elvis Fisher, a left tackle from St. Petersburg, Fla. "You just have to have a passion. You can't be worried about fame or anything like that. You just have to love football, you have to enjoy hitting people."

If they made a movie about offensive linemen, it would not have a romantic title, like "Golden Boy," or "Broadway Joe." Fisher suggested a more likely name on the marquee might be "Fat Kids." Yet, the offensive line is the bottom line in football, the basis for all things glamorous, the DNA of a competition rooted in physical combat and ferocity. The home run pass, the jitterbug run, the spectacular catch … none of it happens without the mud-and-blood moments played out in the trenches.

Missouri does not soar to 7-0 this season and No. 6 in the BCS standings, the Tigers don't upset highly regarded Oklahoma last Saturday, no one tears down goal posts or closes down Broadway if the "Fat Kids" aren't starring in the lead role.

"That's one of the great things about offensive linemen," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who was a tight end in college, a hybrid offensive lineman. "They don't do it for star power. They do it because they love playing football. And guess what? If they don't play well, we don't play well."

To his credit, Pinkel won't compare players or teams with one another. He appreciates and values each on their own merits. But his current offensive stockade — which features more depth and athletic ability than many — certainly has distinguishing marks.

"We're more experienced now," Pinkel said. "I had a high expectation level for them coming in. I thought we played really, really well against Oklahoma. … The protection Blaine (Gabbert) had was outstanding, our run blocking was really good against a really good defensive team. That's what I think we're capable of.

"We play good people, we're not going to win the battle every time. (The opponents) have scholarships, too. They have great players. But I think from a consistency standpoint, our offensive line really played really well last week and that's what we hope we can repeat every week."

Just as there are no bright lights, there are no embellishing statistics to illuminate the offensive line. Page through the Missouri football news-and-notes handout each Monday and you will not see offensive linemen listed, anywhere. Their work is translated by indexes and indicators.

Last season, the Tigers averaged 3.7 yards per rush, this season they average 4.4. Last season, the Tigers had 15 rushing touchdowns in 13 games, this season they have 15 rushing TDs in seven games and their four rotating running backs are each averaging better than 4.5 yards a carry. Last season, the team averaged 5.9 yards per offensive play, same as this season. Last season, Mizzou gained 7.9 yards per pass, this season 7.1.

Last week, the Tigers rushed for 178 yards and passed for 308 yards against one of the top teams in the country. Gabbert completed 30 of 42 throws and went the entire evening without being tackled in the backfield. For center Tim Barnes, that's the pot of gold, the rainbow at the end of a lot of sweaty, bruising, exhausting days. For the O-line, that's as good as it gets.

"Take last Saturday's game as example — that is the best feeling for an offensive lineman," said Barnes, a 6-4, 300-pounder from Longwood, Mo. "You protected your quarterback and opened holes for your running backs. That's the payoff."

Of course, as you might expect with any group so comfortable in their own pads, so dedicated to an eccentric craft, there is as much personality as there is poundage.

Dan Hoch, a 6-7, 315-pound junior, was the first freshman ever to play on the offensive line for Pinkel. A big ol' farm boy from Harlan, Iowa, he is the deceptive one, quiet among those he doesn't know and yet — "He's the most obnoxious," said left guard Jayson Palmgren, a 6-2, 305-pound junior from Kansas City. "I can't explain it, he just always has something to say. He's just obnoxious. In our group, he's not quiet at all."

Fisher is the most animated and talkative, evident during media day as he moves from one interview to the next. Barnes might be the most sensible, might being the operative word. "All offensive lineman are the same, they're different guys …" Pinkel said. "They hang around each other all the time. They all think they're funny. They might be, or they might not be. But they're just a great group of kids."

Hoch, Fisher and Jack Meiners, a 6-6, 305-pound sophomore and Chaminade grad, live together, as do Palmgren and 6-4, 300-pound guard Austin Wuebbels (Troy, Ill.). All of the "Fat Kids" hang together. On Thursday nights, in keeping with a long-held tradition, the offensive line goes out to dinner at G&D Pizzaria in Columbia. Gabbert is "allowed" to tag along.

"We usually don't hit the buffet," Barnes said. "That would be too dangerous."

How dangerous, you ask? Fisher pointed out Barnes would easily win a hot-dog eating contest among the group, adding, "He ate a large pizza one time in under two minutes, or something like that. It was ridiculous."

That's only fitting, because what these cornerstones of football success do each week is ridiculous by nature. They bash into an opposing player, equally big or bigger. They get their hands stepped on, their bodies twisted, their heads slapped and butted. They lose nails, break fingers and absorb all sorts of contusions.

Then, they pick themselves up off the ground, go back to the huddle and anticipate the opportunity to do it again.

"It's different, that's for sure, some people wouldn't like it," Barnes said. "It's a tough position. You're doing battle with a guy on every play, just pretty much fighting with them. A lot of times people don't notice the linemen unless they're messing up. But I enjoy it. Shoot, it's what I'm best at."

They might be the "Fat Kids," but they are the foundation for the excitement surrounding football at Missouri right now. On campus, they don't come any bigger.

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