Glen Elarbee is like the kid in the candy store who doesn’t know whether to choose jelly beans, gum drops or licorice with his allowance.
One year after Missouri skated through a season thin on offensive line depth, Elarbee is blessed with more options. Now he’s just got to decide which five linemen to choose as his top options.
“Everybody’s kind of got somebody on their heels,” said Elarbee, Missouri’s offensive line coach. ... “It definitely makes it easier, because if there’s somebody to push someone, it’s, ‘All right, you don’t want to do it hard? Guess what, the next guy is ready to do it.’”
The offensive line’s performance was a silver lining to Missouri’s 4-8 campaign in 2016.
Although no starters returned from the year before and the limited depth left little room for injury, the unit navigated the challenges to keep Drew Lock protected and open some creases for Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter.
The Tigers surrendered 2.92 tackles for loss per game, the best mark in the nation since that stat started being tracked in 2005. The next-best rate came in 2005, when Minnesota allowed 3.08 TFLs per game.
Missouri surrendered 14 sacks, a rate of 1.2 per game that ranked 16th nationally and topped the SEC. The Tigers’ 4.92 yards per carry ranked eighth in the SEC, five spots higher than the year before.
A year to be proud of, right?
“Last year was nothing. We’ve got to get better,” left tackle Tyler Howell said. “Just keep building on it. ... Personally, I think I played like trash. We’ve just got to get better — probably run blocking the most.”
Howell’s personal assessment is a bit harsh — he kept Lock’s blind side well-protected — but his thought that the offensive line’s performance can improve is a commonly held belief among his position group.
“I think I had a couple rough points last year,” said right tackle Paul Adams, who’s probably Missouri’s most dependable lineman.
Judging offensive line performance is one of the harder layman evaluations. Certainly some of the line’s success last year was a credit to the up-tempo, quick-release passing game and no-frills running attack offensive coordinator Josh Heupel drew up.
The downside to Missouri’s offensive approach last year was that it at times appeared too basic, allowing the defense to zero in. A lot of passing plays used only half the field, which kept Lock’s reads simple and put extra men in the pocket to protect him. But it limited his receiver options.
Lock said Missouri will incorporate more full-field reads this year.
“With the maturity that we have and the growth that we have” on the offensive line, “we’ll be able to be in five- and six-man protection a little bit more instead of gap protection using tight ends and backs, as well,” offensive coordinator Josh Heupel said. “So I think that will help us getting more check downs, getting more guys out” as receiving options. “That will help Drew in third-down situations.”
But it will put more onus on the line to protect him.
Also, Missouri’s up-tempo offense sometimes succeeded at piling up yards and gassing opponents, but it wasn’t ideal when trying to protect a lead and milk the clock. Better to slow it down and run the ball at a more traditional tempo, but slowing down takes away some of the offensive line’s advantage.
“At the end of the day, we want to play fast, but we want to be able to run the football,” Heupel said, “and we want to create big, explosive plays, and finding ways to do that is something we’re going to continue to work on as we go through training camp.”
Heupel, like Elarbee, is more satisfied with the depth of talent on the line this season.
Howell, Adams and left guard Kevin Pendleton return after each started all 12 games in 2016. Yasir Durant, a sophomore junior college transfer, is pushing Howell at second-string left tackle. Right guard Adam Ploudre is the favorite to retain that position after starting seven games a year ago. He’s got Tre’Vour Simms, who last year appeared in some short-yardage packages, behind him. Alec Abeln, who has nine career starts, is working at second-string left guard. He’s capable of moving in with the first unit at any inside line position.
Center is the spot most likely to see a change at starter. Samson Bailey started nine games there in 2016 but has shuffled down the depth chart. Jonah Dubinski, a walk-on from Rock Bridge who started the final two games of last season, is working with the first string, with redshirt freshman Trystan Castillo trying to unseat him.
“Castillo is a really good player,” Dubinski said. “He’s really, really, really good. There’s no doubt about it.” Competition is “stiff. Every day is going to be a battle.”