COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri left guard Kevin Pendleton won’t apologize for all the yards and points the Tigers accumulated the last two years. Consistency was spotty, but Mizzou did lead the Southeastern Conference in yards per game each of the last two seasons under former coordinator Josh Heupel and his no-huddle spread offense. Only Alabama averaged more points a game than the Tigers during Heupel’s watch.
At the time, Pendleton and his linemates would never have dared call Heupel’s system gimmicky, but now that Heupel has shuttled off to Central Florida and Mizzou has installed a new offense, the Tigers are eager to play a different brand of football, one that, in theory, could benefit the offense and defense with a more deliberate, controlled pace.
“There’s no tricks up our sleeves,” Pendleton said Wednesday as the Tigers continued their third week of summer workouts. “We’re not putting pressure on our defense with a 27-second drive. We’re trying to take control of the game. We’re trying to score points but also dictate how the tempo and pace are run. When you control the game you control whether you win or lose. That’s what we want to do.”
On the surface the Tigers had no trouble piling up prolific numbers during Heupel’s two-year run, but an 11-14 record and other measures suggest the Tigers were hardly in complete control. Mizzou averaged an SEC-best 37.5 points and 502.2 yards a game last year, but the production stalled against the best competition: MU averaged 18 points and 372.7 yards against six winning FBS teams compared to 51.3 points and 579.5 yards against six losing FBS teams.
The Tigers also skimmed the bottom of the national rankings in time of possession under Heupel, ranking last (No. 128) and second-to-last (No. 127) the last two years, respectively. That put Barry Odom’s defense on the field for more minutes than any team in the country the last two seasons combined.
The Tigers consistently blocked well for quarterback Drew Lock and his running backs, but in Heupel’s offense, the linemen only held their blocks for a beat or two before he unloaded a quick pass or handoff. Fatigue was the line’s best weapon, not necessarily the most polished technique or diverse play-calling. Linemen didn’t have to diagnose the defense, just beat them back to the line of scrimmage for the next snap.
The better teams on the schedule were less vulnerable to Mizzou’s lightning pace.
“Last year we were going so fast that half the time the defense wasn’t set up,” sophomore center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “OK, we’re running inside zone right. We’d look up and sometimes the backers weren’t in position, but we’d just go.”
While Mizzou will continue to run a no-huddle offense under new coordinator Derek Dooley, the Tigers won’t be in such a hurry to make the next snap. Under Dooley and new offensive line coach Brad Davis, linemen are using those precious seconds between plays to read the defense, calculate adjustments and communicate accordingly before the next play.
The veterans along the line of scrimmage expect the changes to pay off.
“Having our eyes up and reading the defense will help us out so much more,” right tackle Paul Adams said. “That’ll be the hard part because we’ve always just put our hand on the ground and snapped the ball. Defenses were scrambling around most of the time, but this year they’re going to be set. Our eyes are going to be a huge emphasis.”
Once preseason practices begin in August, the Tigers will return all five starters along the offensive line. Adams and Pendleton are back as third-year starters, while left tackle Yasir Durant, Colon-Castillo in the middle and right guard Tre’Vour Simms return as second-year starters.
“You’ve got to be physical every play no matter what type of offense you’re in,” Durant said. “But mentally it’ll be better for us to see what we’re going against and actually having it in our heads. That’s the big thing (Davis) has installed with us, knowing what the defense is doing before they do it. If you know that, you’ve got an advantage every play.”
Offensive line coach Glen Elarbee’s departure for UCF last December left Mizzou’s linemen in shock, but the charismatic 38-year-old Davis quickly won them over by challenging them to learn more about the game’s schematics. Colon-Castillo said he’s learned more Xs and Os the last few months than every previous year of football combined.
“Elarbee, good coach,” Colon-Castillo said. “He taught us how to play hard and be physical and things like that. Coach Davis brings all of that along with knowledge of the game. He wants us to understand the ins and outs of football. He wants us to understand coverages, schemes on defense, blitzes, all kinds of things. That way it makes us better football players.”
And, Pendleton believes, better equipped to hold their ground against the elite teams in the SEC. In 16 conference games the last two years, the Tigers were 2-10 against teams that played in bowls.
“With a new offense and the new things we’re doing … we still hold ourselves to a high standard,” Pendleton said. “We still hold ourselves to the responsibility that we do have to carry this team. We have to put it on our back. We have to give Drew five, six, seven seconds. If that’s what they’re asking, we’ve got to do it. If we have to run the ball 40 times in a game, that’s what we’re going to do.”
No gimmicks, no shortcuts. Maybe a few extra gasps of air between snaps. Then it’s back inside the trenches.
“You’ve got to be a big boy,” Pendleton said. “It’s a big boy league.”