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Mizzou football's room for growth lies along line of scrimmage

Mizzou football's room for growth lies along line of scrimmage

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Kentucky Missouri Football

Missouri defensive lineman Tre Williams, left, reaches for Kentucky running back Asim Rose Jr., right, during the first half an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Mark Richt thinks back on Sept. 8, 2012, a historic day for the Missouri football program, two memories come to mind. Georgia’s former head coach brought his Bulldogs to Columbia that day for Mizzou’s first Southeastern Conference contest.

“When we drove up (to the stadium), it was interesting how friendly all the fans were,” Richt told the Post-Dispatch in a recent phone interview. “We weren’t used to that. That was kind of interesting. I think the crowd had to learn how to be an SEC crowd a little bit.

“Then of course, that was the ‘old man football’ game. Or ‘grown man football.’ One of their kids said something that helped motivate the team, so our guys at the end of the game were writing things on the grease boards about ‘grown man football.’ I don't remember exactly what happened, but I know our guys were extra hyped about the smack talking before the game.”

Old man football. That was the infamous quote Missouri defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson delivered a week earlier when asked about Richt’s Bulldogs. It wasn’t a compliment. He wasn’t saluting Georgia’s superior depth and talent along the trenches.

Richardson said he’d turned off his TV during Georgia’s last game.

“It's like watching Big Ten football,” he quipped. “It's old man football.”

The Bulldogs got a kick out of Richardson’s jab — then promptly controlled the line of scrimmage in a 41-20 victory over his Tigers.

The narrative hasn’t shifted much over the last decade. For all the offensive pizzazz the SEC has produced with sleek passing attacks and dynamic quarterbacks, first-year Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz still embraces the tried but true identity of the conference, often calling it a “line of scrimmage league.”

That’s an area where Mizzou has not kept pace with the best in the conference — and an area Drinkwitz acknowledges needs to improve for Mizzou to climb out of the SEC’s middle class.

The Tigers’ best moments in the SEC have come when their offensive and defensive lines are stacked with players who could match up with the elite lines in the conference. MU’s 2013 and 2014 teams that captured the SEC East Division and won a combined 23 games included nine offensive and defensive linemen who’d turn into NFL draft picks, including six taken in the first or second round.

Since then, the program has suffered a shortage of elite manpower in the trenches. In the last three drafts, Missouri has produced just two line of scrimmage players: defensive tackles Terry Beckner Jr. (seventh round in 2019) and Jordan Elliott (third round, 2020).

In 2018, four offensive linemen from Mizzou’s 2013 team started at center on the same weekend across the NFL: Evan Boehm (Colts), Justin Britt (Seahawks), Connor McGovern (Broncos) and Mitch Morse (Chiefs). Boehm, McGovern and Morse are still in the league on different teams, but meanwhile, four drafts have passed since the last Mizzou offensive lineman was selected. Four undrafted O-linemen have since made NFL teams, either practice squads or 53-man rosters, but the pipeline has gathered rust.

This year, roster attrition, injuries and COVID-19 have only underscored Mizzou’s depth problems along the line of scrimmage. Earlier this fall, the Tigers came close to falling short of available scholarship players for the SEC’s threshold for offensive linemen (seven) and this week had to postpone Saturday’s game against Georgia because contact tracing had trimmed the defensive line to three scholarship players, one short of the SEC requirement.

Earlier this week, when asked to measure the state of Mizzou’s lines midway through his debut season, Drinkwitz chose his words carefully.

“That's a hard (question) for me to answer with five games left and knowing that our guys are giving us everything they got,” he said. “Our guys work every single day to try to be the very best that they can be, so I'm not going to disparage where they are compared to where we need to be. I just do know that we’ve got to improve. We've got to get better. You always want more depth. You always want more athleticism.”

Drinkwitz noted that two of his starting offensive linemen didn’t arrive until this summer: Rutgers graduate transfer Mike Maietti and junior college transfer Zeke Powell. The team’s best pass rusher, defensive end/outside linebacker Trajan Jeffcoat, joined the team midway through preseason camp after leaving the university last year.

Recruiting rankings aren’t the only measure of a team’s strengths and weaknesses, but they can serve as an accurate barometer. Those rankings reveal a severe shortage of elite line of scrimmage prospects for the Tigers over the last few years under former coach Barry Odom’s regime.

Using Rivals.com’s rankings, Mizzou’s last five recruiting classes (2016-20) produced just two four- or five-star linemen: defensive ends Tre Williams (2016) and Daniel Parker Jr. (2018), who moved to tight end midway through his first preseason camp.

Across the SEC East Division, only Vanderbilt signed fewer four- and five-star linemen, with just one. Georgia, the division’s recruiting powerhouse, has signed 33 four- and five-star linemen over the last five classes, followed by Florida (23), Tennessee (22), South Carolina (13) and Kentucky (12).

Then again, Gary Pinkel’s Mizzou staff didn’t construct those 2013-14 lines with elite prospects. That came with shrewd recruiting evaluation and diligent player development. Short of loading up on the blue-chip linemen, can Drinkwitz’s staff follow a similar plan?

“I know this is a game of size, a league of size,” he said. “We've got to continue to increase our size and our numbers. I think this is a league that's also really deep, and we're not where we need to be on both sides as far as numbers.”

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