Drinkwitz challenges offensive line, changes along the line coming

After quarterback, it can be argued the offensive line is the second most important position group on the team. If the quarterback doesn’t have time to pass then it doesn’t really matter who the position players are.

That was evident for Mizzou last season when the team finished 122nd in tackles for loss allowed per game with 7.77 and 101 for the season, allowed 27 sacks, committed 38 penalties as a unit and had six lineup changes due to inconsistent play and durability issues.

Right tackle Hyrin White missed the entire season and transferred to SMU after he was given a medical redshirt to play in 2023. His replacement, Zeke Powell, suffered a season-ending injury in week four against Auburn in what would be the final game of his career. Right guard EJ Ndoma-Ogar suffered a season-ending injury in week 10 versus Kentucky, center Connor Tollison was helped off the field in the Gasparilla Bowl and right guard/right tackle Connor Wood was carted off in the same game in what would be his final collegiate game in the.

Head coach Eli Drinkwitz made a challenge to his offensive line on Monday during his first media day appearance of the spring to set a more physical identity for the team in 2023.

“The offensive line has to set the tone for our program,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s got to be physical and it’s got to be tough. They’ve got to be tough in the trenches and it’s got to mean something to them. They’ve got to run the team which is a challenge because we have a lot of good leaders. Right now our linebackers are going to run this team with Chad (Bailey) and Ty’Ron (Hopper), who are really good players and leaders and we really need this offensive line to step up.”

Someone who will be expected to help jumpstart this new physical identity is left tackle Javon Foster, who was a team captain last season and someone Drinkwitz said “is one of the top five tackles in the country.”

It helps that Ndoma-Ogar, who impressed at right guard in his two starts in week nine and week 10 before suffering his injury in the latter game, will be a limited participant for several practices but at some point should be a full participant heading into the spring football game on March 18. Also, Tollison wasn’t a part of Drinkwitz’s injury update and is expected to be a full participant.

It’s not clear how or who exactly will turn this offensive line around from a physicality and production standpoint but the honus is certainly on the group this spring to do it.

A lot of people expected the Tigers to get at least two or three offensive linemen once the transfer portal opened in early December. So, it came to many people’s surprise when the portal closed in mid-January and the team only got former Eastern Michigan left tackle Marcellus Johnson.

For now, the Tigers believe they have the talent on the roster to make something shake with the addition of Johnson.

Obviously, with Foster back in the fold it was confirmed by Drinkwitz that Johnson would move to the other side of the line.

“Marcellus Johnson has an opportunity to come in and we look forward to seeing him battle at the right tackle position,” Drinkwitz said. “Marcellus is a guy that played left tackle and he’s got a lot of experience where we think he can translate to right guard or right tackle depending on how Armand (Membou) plays off of that,” Drinkwitz said.

Even though Drinkwitz hinted at Johnson possibly being right guard, he won’t be. At least to start spring 一 that’ll be Membou, who clearly impressed Drinkwitz in his four starts at right tackle to end his true freshman season last year.

“They (Membou) will start at right guard the first day of practice, and then we will kind of just see,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s a very powerful and athletic player and we will just kind of see what is his best fit. For us, it’s about getting the five best on the field.

“One of the regrets that I had was not playing Armand sooner in a full-time role as a starting tackle because he came in and played really well and his future is really bright.”

At center, Drinkwitz said there will be a competition among last season’s starter Tollison, Bence Polgar and Drake Heismeyer.

At left guard, the team retained the services of Xavier Delgado, but his position is far from safe. If Membou is slotted in at right guard then Ndoma-Ogar will likely compete with Delgado at left guard. Experience and injuries on the right side of the line likely had a lot to do with him remaining the starter last season. Things are a little different this time around.

Then, there’s a host of redshirts from a season ago that could also push for playing time now that they have a season under their belt.

“When you look at guys like Tristan Wilson, Valen Erickson or Curtis Peagler those are guys we feel like can really play,” Drinkwitz said. “If you recruit guys it’s your job to develop them and I don’t really want to get into this every time we have an issue we just try to plug and play from the portal because you lose that developmental factor.”

So, the Tiger have three positions (left tackle, right guard and right tackle) they feel good with at this moment. They have one position (left guard) that they seem to be optimistic about and one position (center) that could be viewed as a wild card.

Drinkwitz didn’t confirm or deny the team will look at the portal when it re-opens from May 1-15, but instead insisted the team will give an opportunity to the players already on the roster.

“I can’t speak to what’s going to be in the portal in I guess six weeks, that’s hypothetical,” Drinkwitz said. “So, our job is to build what we have and take what we have and make it to what we want. … So, if we have a belief in those guys (currently on the roster), and we do have belief, it doesn’t mean that if somebody shows up in the portal that we think can help us that we won’t take them, but we’re focused on these guys. We’ve got a lot of opportunity for guys to really compete and play.”

Every team is going to look at the portal when it opens because it would probably be irresponsible to not do so, but as far as Missouri being aggressive and getting another player to sign that’s unknown. The number of players who show out during spring football will determine that.