By Max Baker Special for the Post-Dispatch
COLUMBIA, Mo. — When third-year offensive line coach Marcus Johnson walked into his post meeting room at the start of spring camp, he reminded his group of what they had lost.
As difficult as it may seem, center Michael Maietti will not play college football for the seventh straight year. And Case Cook also opted out of returning for another year, which left Missouri with two major holes to fill on its offensive line.
“Someone is going to have to take this group by the horns and rock and roll with it, holding each other accountable,” Johnson told his band.
The most experienced veteran, graduate student Hyrin White, will miss at least the end of spring and summer camp with a leg injury. He played 10 games last season before suffering an injury that sidelined him for the rest of the year.
“You try to find the right five,” said Johnson, who said they have a few guys who can play in multiple positions. “I never say top five. Five guys who can be on the same page.
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Last season, Missouri’s offensive line had a solid year. They helped block Tyler Badie on his way to an All-American campaign, but also struggled at times against some of the more elite fronts in the SEC. Nationally, Missouri ranked No. 79 in tackles for loss allowed and No. 20 in sacks allowed.
“I felt like we were all playing for each other,” offensive lineman Javon Foster said. “We played as a unit and cared about each other. It goes a long way.”
While it’s important to find the top five offensive linemen ahead of Missouri’s opener against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 3, the team isn’t trying to move players from their primary positions just yet.
“There’s a plethora of options, but we try not to move people around so much that they can’t have individual growth,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said.
While the team itself isn’t so focused on deep competition, there are likely three offensive line positions still in question.
For now, Zeke Powell will probably lead the right tackle and Foster will lead the other tackle position after starting in every game last season. Dylan Spencer took on the Reserve Reps at left tackle this spring. After settling into the SEC ball last year, Connor Wood probably brings the most positional flexibility and could be propelled into one of the guard positions. Wood said at first there was a speed and size difference related to the transfer from Montana State.
“There are freaks of nature, Jordan Davis,” Wood said. “It’s the most important thing, it’s trying to get used to it, the repetition, the experience… But in the end, it’s just football.”
Both Xavier Delgado and Luke Griffin split their time at guard last year and Oklahoma transfer EJ Ndoma-Ogar could also be in the mix for increased playing time.
The center might be the biggest question mark for the Missouri line. After Maietti started 23 games for the Tigers over the past two seasons, Missouri is left with either Buffalo transfer Bence Polgar or redshirt rookie Connor Tollison to fill the void. Polgar started 11 of 12 games last season and has picked up reps with starters so far. But Johnson said it was more about getting our feet wet to gain chemistry and cohesion with the first group.
“It’s really a one-day-at-a-time process,” Johnson said. “As they say, the cream rises to the top when the time comes.”
While Tollison has less experience, Missouri coaches have touted his position’s versatility.
“Coach Johnson sets us up for any position,” Wood said. “I think everyone within the O line needs to understand all assignments as well as positions. You can move from left to right and it won’t be a big problem. It just shows your value to the team.
To ease the transition, Wood said he is trying to understand the offense well enough to make the calls for the entire right side of the line. Although it will take time, he is confident that he will get there by the end of spring.
Part of Johnson’s preparation is getting guys to take reps in multiple positions. Often, like last year, the five members of the offensive line don’t stay healthy all year and the reshuffling begins.
“You have to start training these guys at some point just so that when the season comes around it’s not their first time at the party,” Johnson said.
A newcomer who has impressed so far is Armand Membou. The four-star running back was ranked Missouri’s 7th prospect by 247Sports. He enrolled early at Lee Summit North High School, and Johnson said it would do a lot for the future.
“I think he’s going to fit into the program,” said Johnson, who signed up early when he played at Mississippi. “(He gets) a chance to learn your system. He’ll probably be a step ahead of his peers once they get here this summer. I know it’s benefited me personally. I felt like to be so far ahead of my peers in my second year in the program, because I practiced with the first and the second group.
For now, Missouri likely won’t find any definite answer on its line. But that’s to be expected and part of the growth Johnson hopes to see.