COLUMBIA - The sight of Maty Mauk scrambling away from pass rushers was an all-too-familiar one for the Missouri football team last season. The junior quarterback might be able to familiarize himself with the pocket a bit more this year.
The Tigers' offensive line returns five seniors - all of whom started games last season - and a combined 97 starts.
"I feel like we've got a lot of experience coming back, a lot of talented young guys that are ready to step in and play a little bit," senior Taylor Chappell said. "I feel like we've got a really good group this year, and we're just committed to getting better."
Getting solid play from the offensive line will be key for the Tigers, who face a dearth at experience at wide receiver and some questions marks at tailback behind 1,000-yard rusher Russell Hansbrough.
"It should allow for us to give Maty a lot more time," senior Connor McGovern said of the line's consistency. "I know we got criticized a lot with having to have Maty flush the pocket, and I think now hopefully with us being so experienced we can have that pocket better and allow Maty to make more plays, to get the ball right on the money, so it makes it a little bit easier on the wide receivers. They're athletes. They can catch the ball, but the better the throw, the easier it is for them."
Though there are plenty of faces on the offensive line, there is still wiggle room as to who will be playing where.
"(Offensive line) coach (A.J.) Ricker's big thing is the best five on the field are going to play, and the best fifth guy can be a second-string" player, center Evan Boehm said. "So what we do now is we move that guy up and see where he can play."
The Tigers have four fall camp practices remaining before their first scrimmage, which head coach Gary Pinkel said likely will lead to some adjustments on the depth chart.
"Camp is camp," Chappell said. "People are going to be juggled around a little bit. We're going to find what works. We've got a lot of guys that can play multiple positions, so we're all prepared for that."
Chappell, who started 10 games last season and played in 13, is currently listed as the starting left guard. Behind him on the depth chart is fellow senior Brad McNulty, who also started 10 games last season. Mitch Hall leads the pack at right guard, where he made all four of his career starts. Sophomore Nate Crawford, recovering from a back injury, is listed as the starting right tackle. Backing him up is Clay Rhodes, who got significant time at the position in spring camp. Junior-college transfer Malik Cuellar could also figure into some position battles on the line.
McGovern and Boehm started every game last season, Boehm at center and McGovern at right guard and right tackle. McGovern has shifted to left tackle this offseason to fill the hole left by Mitch Morse, a second-round draft pick by the Kansas City Chiefs in May. Boehm, who has started all 40 games of his Missouri career, is the line's anchor at center. He was named third-team preseason All-SEC.
But even for players like left tackle McGovern and Boehm, whose spots are likely secure, a heavy dose of competition can go a long way.
"Coach Pinkel and our program really starts everything with competition," McGovern said. "Competition brings out the best in everybody, so it's helping everyone get better. It helps me get better at left tackle, Evan get better at center - even though people don't think our spots are going to get taken. Every competition everywhere makes everyone better, no matter if you think you've got a spot or you're working for a spot."
Plus, it never hurts to have backup linemen ready to step in.
"Obviously, we've got to sort everything out that happens, but we've also got to get young players ready to play," Pinkel said. "Regardless of the experience of the older guys, we've got to get younger players in position and ready to play, and that's the challenge we always have there."
The Tigers found that out in 2012 when the line was hampered by multiple injuries and McNulty had to make five starts as a freshman. Last season, starter Anthony Gatti was lost for the season when he tore his ACL against Indiana, forcing Chappell to move into the starting lineup.
McGovern set a school squat record in June when he notched five reps at 690 pounds.
"It's the scariest thing I've ever seen in my life," Boehm said. "No joke."
The 6-foot-4, 305-pound McGovern's weight-lifting process has been well-documented. The North Dakota native customized his own workout "dungeon" in his parents' basement and was named the second-strongest player in college football by NFL.com.
Boehm credits his current fitness level to McGovern's workout program. The center said nearly the whole team was on hand to watch his fellow lineman's record-setting attempt.
"Yeah, it's kind of cool," said McGovern, who broke Jack Meiners' record. "When everyone goes for big weight, no matter if it's a school record or a personal record, everyone kind of gets around and cheers and it just creates a better atmosphere in the weight room. I happened to do when a lot of guys were in there. It was a lot of fun having them around, but we do that for everybody. It's awesome, the atmosphere in there."
After finishing his fifth rep, McGovern screamed and ripped off his shirt a la the Incredible Hulk, Boehm said, before falling back into Boehm's arms.
"That's one of the beastiest things and moments I think I've seen here at Mizzou," Boehm said.
Monday's practice was Missouri's first in full pads, and the Tigers broke them in with a little dance. Led by the quarterbacks, Missouri kicked off practice with a team-long conga line down Faurot field, salsa dancing along to the Merrymen's "Congo Line."
"That was interesting," Pinkel said. "That's the creativity award we're going to give to the quarterbacks. The seniors decided they wanted to do a dance before every practice, so the quarterbacks and the special-teams guys were up today and so they did their little Mexican dance all the way through the stadium.
"It was real cute. I love cuteness on the football field. Vince Lombardi's got to be looking down from Heaven just shaking his head. But they have a lot of good times. We have a good time starting out, and they also got to run a lot less than they normally have to do to go stretch, so they were more excited about that than anything."