Matter’s Mizzou camp countdown: More expected from veteran O-line
COLUMBIA, MO. • They say experience matters most along the offensive line. If that’s true, Missouri is well positioned to have its best front five in years. The projected starters from tackle to tackle have started a combined 85 games, with two backups accounting for another 11 starts.
According to the count of preseason magazine extraordinaire Phil Steele, that gives Mizzou the fourth-most experienced O-line in the SEC in terms of career starts. Only 13 teams in the Power 5 conferences return more starting experience along the line.
Does O-line experience translate into success? It’s a small sample size, but entering the 2017 season, the 10 Power 5 teams with the most career O-line starts averaged 9.5 wins. Only Tennessee (4-8) and Iowa (8-5) failed to win at least nine games. Four others played in their conference championship game: Auburn, Miami, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Seven of the 10 ranked among the nation’s top 45 in yards per play. Outside of the Power 5, 10-win Memphis and 13-0 UCF also ranked in the top five for career O-line starts heading into the season.
Led by right tackle Paul Adams (25 career starts) and left guard Kevin Pendleton (24 starts), the line returns all five starters from the most-used lineup last year, including first-year starters left tackle Yasir Durant (10 starts), center Trystan Colon-Castillo (13 starts) and right guard Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms (13 starts).
They’ll have to use their experience as an advantage when it comes to diagnosing defenders across the line of scrimmage.
“We’ve played a lot of ball,” Pendleton said earlier this summer. “We’ve seen a lot of things. Anytime we can use whatever they’re doing or how alignment tips off. We have to have the confidence to call it out. Guys saw it last year, guys knew what was happening, but they weren’t telling their buddy next to them. That’s the next step we have to take. We have to share our knowledge and have the confidence.”
As the Tigers absorb a new offense under coordinator Derek Dooley and new protection scheme under line coach Brad Davis, pressure falls on a line that can’t rely on a pedal-to-the-floor tempo as a constant equalizer against opposing defenses. Pressure falls on Davis to build on the progress the line made under former position coach Glen Elarbee. And pressure falls on the broad shoulders of Durant to be the blindside protector of the program’s Heisman Trophy candidate.
Durant has an interesting background. The Philadelphia native signed with San Diego State out of high school but was a late academic qualifier and instead headed to junior college in Arizona. He stayed committed to San Diego State but in his brief time in Arizona —a s a Division I qualifier he only needed one semester at the juco — more teams discovered the 6-7, 345-pound behemoth in the desert. A few weeks before Christmas, Durant flipped his commitment to Missouri and enrolled in time for spring practices. The Tigers returned another monstrous left tackle in Tyler Howell, but three games into the season, Mizzou turned to Durant as the starter and stuck with him for the rest of the year. He had some shaky moments early but put together a promising debut season.
A year later, a retooled offensive staff has kept the starting five intact, with Durant locked into the left tackle spot entering camp.
“I’m way, way, way more comfortable,” he said earlier this summer, “just comfortable in the system and just knowing the plays and learning more about football.”
Durant and his linemates can’t rely on experience alone. With less emphasis on tempo and run-pass option plays — RPOs were a staple in former coordinator Josh Heupel’s system — the line will have to excel at traditional pass protection to keep Drew Lock upright. No tricks, no gimmicks.
“Last year we were going so fast that half the time the defense wasn’t set up,” Colon-Castillo said. “OK, say we’re running inside zone right. We’d look up and sometimes the backers weren’t in position, but we’d just go. Now, we’re slowing the pace down a little bit, so the backers will be on point and now you have to figure out what everyone is doing.”
Developing depth will be important during preseason camp, though identifying starters is probably less a concern this year. Not a single Mizzou O-lineman appeared on the SEC media’s preseason all-conference team, just like not a single O-lineman appeared on last year’s postseason all-conference team, despite an offense that led the SEC in yards per game and allowed the fewest sacks and tackles for loss. More of the same might lead to some accolades this year, but this group isn’t consumed with those honors.
“I could care less about All-SEC,” Pendleton said. “That’s fine. I don’t worry about that. I want a ring. I want go out the right way, on top. That’s the motivation we use every day to wake up at 6 a.m. and get out and run. I’m not worried about individual accolades. I’m glad for the guys that (received them). And we’ll celebrate those guys. But those guys aren’t worried about it. We’re not worried about it. We’re worried about winning games.”
Camp countdown previews: