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Fresh voice guides retooled Mizzou offensive line

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Marcus Johnson

COLUMBIA, Mo. – It took longer to hire an offensive line coach than any other position on Eliah Drinkwitz's new Missouri football staff, but Marcus Johnson's arrival could be worth the wait.

Johnson, officially hired the second week of January, checks a lot of boxes when it comes to hiring a position coach for a program that's in transition:

• He's relatively young – he turned 36 earlier this month – and adds to the fresh, revived energy on a staff that features seven coaches younger than 40 on the staff of 11, including the head coach.

• He's young but isn't learning on the job. Prior to coming to Mizzou he served as the offensive line coach at two Power 5 programs, Duke and Mississippi State.

• The Southeastern Conference runs through his football DNA. Johnson grew up in Coffeeville, Miss., played football 30 miles away at Mississippi, where he was an all-conference offensive guard, and later coached at Mississippi State.

• He's got NFL experience. Johnson was a second-round draft choice by the Vikings in 2005 and played five years in the league, also blocking for the Raiders and Buccaneers.

• Perhaps most impressive, he arrived with a strong endorsement from one of the college game's most respected coaches, David Cutcliffe. Johnson played for Cutcliffe at Mississippi – he helped protect quarterback Eli Manning during the Rebels' 10-win season in 2003 – and later coached under Cutcliffe at Duke, first as a strength and conditioning coach, then as a quality control offensive assistant and, finally, as the Blue Devils' O-line coach in 2016-17.

"Throughout his college playing career, Marcus was relentless with his lifting and training and it showed," Cutcliffe said in a recent email interview. "He improved his quickness and strength every year. His hard work and dedication were evident. He also studied the game, and through this became an extension of his position coach, John Latina."

After working in the Duke weight room his first year out of the NFL, Johnson made the transition to an on-field coaching role and "was a natural from the start," Cutcliffe said.

"His strongest quality is what it should be for every coach: building relationships. He understands the importance and values the process. Marcus also does a great job as a coach of giving his players functional tips. He's a player at heart and his insights play a key role in the development of his players."

If Johnson lives up to his former coach's high praise, he'll prove to be a valuable hire for Drinkwitz's rebuilt staff, no matter how long it took to finalize. After coaching the Mississippi State O-line the last two seasons, Johnson wasn't retained by new Bulldogs coach Mike Leach but wasn't unemployed long, landing at Mizzou the same day Leach was introduced in Starkville, Miss.

The hectic churn of the offseason coaching market didn't seem to rattle Johnson.

"Me, being in my position, I was always taught by my mentor, my O-line coach (Latina) ... he always taught us to expect the worst and you'll never be surprised," Johnson said shortly after moving to Columbia. "So that's actually how I live my life. Not that I live my life miserable, but I always try to stay a step ahead."

Of the seven new assistants Drinkwitz hired, Johnson is the only one who hasn't previously worked with the head coach at Auburn, Arkansas State or Appalachian State. That lack of familiarity didn't deter Johnson.

"I know (Drinkwitz) is a young, innovative coach, an up-and-coming coach," Johnson said. "He's done some really good things from an offensive standpoint. And to me, in this profession, you better continue to learn and grow and not become complacent."

Johnson's task at Mizzou comes with some challenges. By every measure, last year's offensive line underachieved despite returning three third-year starters in left tackle Yasir Durant, center Trystan Colon-Castillo and right guard Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms. Heading into the season, Mizzou's former offensive staff settled on first-year starters Larry Borom at left guard and Hyrin White at right tackle but after the season-opening loss at Wyoming shook up the lineup in what became a season-long game of mix and match that never produced consistent results. MU flipped Wallace-Simms from the right to left side but the 2018 first-team All-SEC selection never seemed comfortable at his new spot. Borom bounced from guard to right tackle to make room for Case Cook at right guard. No matter the combination, the Tigers rarely controlled the line of scrimmage as expected.

A year later, last year's veterans are all on NFL rosters as undrafted rookies: Durant in Kansas City, Colon-Castillo in Baltimore and Wallace-Simms in Jacksonville, though the East St. Louis native was put on the Jaguars' reserve/COVID-19 list this week.

Back at Mizzou, Johnson is left with three returning juniors with starting experience: Borom (11 career starts), Cook (10 starts) and White (two starts). During the pandemic-shortened spring practice season, Borom worked at right tackle with the first unit with White at left tackle. Cook was recovering from offseason surgery but figures to be a leading candidate at one of the guard positions. Sophomores Mike Ruth, Thalen Robinson and Xavier Delgado could get looks inside, too.

Unless Cook shifts inside to center, the Tigers will have a newcomer in the middle, too. Colon-Castillo surprised some when he left Mizzou to enter the NFL draft after his junior season, but the Tigers might have upgraded at the position, landing Rutgers graduate transfer Mike Maietti, who started 33 games the last three seasons for the Big Ten team.

A handful of underclassmen could provide depth, including redshirt freshman Jack Buford and freshmen Drake Heismeyer and Mitchell Walters.