Health of Mizzou’s offensive line is nothing to joke about

COLUMBIA, MO — Justin Britt admits he felt it.

When the first pass rush drill of fall camp came, he bent the right knee that betrayed him, and there it was, as present as the defender in front of his face.

Doubt.

“It’s been like a year since I’ve done it,” Britt would say later.

When one takes into consideration that Mizzou’s starting left tackle tore his ACL last season, the caution that crossed Britt’s mind is completely understandable. It’s natural. It’s also the instinct the Mizzou offensive line — a unit marred by injuries in 2012 — is trying to distance itself from.

“We don’t talk about it much,” Britt says. “The coaches have really put an emphasis on changing the way our minds think about injuries, how we joke about it. … We don’t want to think about injuries, because that’s how you get hurt.”

Wait. What?

“Last year, we would always joke around about it, with Elvis and all that stuff,” center Evan Boehm says. “But, you know, you start joking around about it and you start thinking about it. It turns into negative thoughts.”

It’s an interesting theory. But the Tigers would be wise to do everything in their power to change what happened last year. The jokes used to playfully chide Elvis Fisher, a now-graduated lineman who was no stranger to knee problems, are far from funny when reflecting on a constantly shifting line that factored into Mizzou’s first losing season since 2004.

“Injuries just depleted them,” an assistant coach at another FBS school told FOXSportsMidwest.com recently. “More than anything, it was a string of bad luck. Tough to overcome in any league, not to mention the SEC.”

Here’s the review:

Mark Hill, a tackle, never started practice due to a bizarre health scare (blood clots were discovered in his arm). Guard Travis Ruth (torn triceps) and tackle Taylor Chappell (torn ACL) went down in camp. None of these three touched the field in 2012. Oh, and one more. Right guard Jack Meiners strained his left knee during a scrimmage.

Then came the games.

Fisher, a tackle who sat out 2011 with a torn left ACL, sprained his right MCL against Georgia in Week 2. He missed three games, enough time for Meiners to return and get hurt again. Mitch Morse, the Tigers’ starting center, came and went with a knee sprain, and Britt tore his ACL against Florida on Nov. 3.

“I’ve never been around something like that,” quarterback James Franklin, no stranger to injuries, says now of the grim trend. “Hopefully, we don’t have to do it again.”

Mizzou’s chance at SEC redemption could hinge on the health of its big men, and the Tigers are making changes that should help protect that exact thing. In addition to asking his team to become more serious about injuries, coach Gary Pinkel has cut two-a-days from the schedule, reigned in conditioning drills and trimmed down opportunities for collisions.

Ideally, the Tigers will cycle as many as eight or nine linemen in and out of games to build experience and give rest.  And plenty of battle-tested backups return because so many bodies were needed in 2012. But the core group of five projected starters — Britt (left tackle), Max Copeland (left guard), Boehm (he has switched from left guard to center), Connor McGovern (he has switched from center to right guard) and Morse (right tackle) — will be key.

“This group is going to be good,” says Boehm, the only starter who started every game last year. “We all know each other, know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. I’m excited to keep working with these guys, even with the No. 2s. Everybody is looking fresh. Everybody is looking good.”

Most important, everyone is looking healthy. For now.

“I got a little nervous,” Britt said Thursday, after that flicker of doubt came and went.  “But I did the drill. You are always building confidence.”

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com.