Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Most football players are required to lift weights. Connor McGovern needs no such urging. He has been lifting since fifth grade, was essentially his high school’s assistant weight-lifting coach while he was still a high schooler, and as a redshirt freshman, the Missouri offensive lineman missed a Phish concert at Madison Square Garden because the girth of his right bicep turned a three-hour tattooing process into a six-hour affair.
So he should be no stranger to what the Tigers’ offensive line hopes to do this season.
Raise the bar.
Four of the five members of Missouri’s starting offensive line last season return, all seniors: right guard McGovern, center Evan Boehm, left tackle Taylor Chappell and left guard Brad McNulty.
“They’re just so experienced,” senior tailback Russell Hansbrough said. “They’re on the sidelines always talking about things and getting things situated. They’re probably the best O-line to ever come through Mizzou, I would say.”
The lone departed starter is Mitch Morse, who is currently training in hopes of being drafted into the NFL. The Tigers are also without Anthony Gatti, who tore his ACL four games into his senior season.
Boehm has started all 40 games of his college career, and McGovern has started every game the past two seasons after playing in nine as a redshirt freshman. McNulty started 10 games in place of Gatti last season and appeared in 21 games the two previous years, starting five. Chappell also started 10 games last season after getting time in four games in 2013. Mitch Hall, who started the first four games of 2014, returns for the Tigers as well.
“I know their strengths,” Boehm said. “I know their weaknesses, and they know my strengths, and they know my weaknesses. It’s kind of cool to see us building on top of each other and getting better on all our weaknesses.”
Chappell moves from right tackle to left tackle, a position Missouri linemen have thrived at of late, to replace Morse, who has been projected as a mid-round NFL draft pick. Morse replaced Justin Britt, who was selected by Seattle in the second round of the 2014 draft.
“There’s a little bit of pressure there,” Chappel said, “just because it kind of goes with the prestige with being the left tackle. But I just see it as a great opportunity. I’m good friends with both of those guys. I keep up with them. … So I just feel like it’s a great resource to draw on, that I have those examples in front of me.”
Chappell said he feels more confident than ever in his lower body after missing all of the 2012 season with a knee injury. The lead contender to take his spot at right tackle is sophomore Clay Rhoades, who has impressed thus far in spring practice.
“If you were to watch the offensive line and say, ‘Pick out the newcomer,’ I don’t think you really could,” Boehm said. “I think Clay’s out there, and Clay’s holding his own and doing a great job. You want to talk about a kid that’s worked hard in the off-season to get where he’s at, Clay is definitely that guy.”
Boehm returns as center, and McGovern, who has shifted positions throughout his Missouri career, will be at right guard again — though Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said he relishes the ability to move his veteran players around. Boehm and McGovern were evaluated as potential draft picks this past season but decided to put their experience toward their senior seasons at Missouri.
“The NFL is something for after college football,” said McGovern, who said he and Boehm did not receive first- or second-round projections. “We want to be the best team possible, and we know that we have a really good group of guys. … We have bigger fish to fry right now.”
Just as the offensive line returns a glut of experience, its coach brings some added familiarity to this season as well. A.J. Ricker was hired as offensive line coach just before two-a-days last fall and now has a full season of experience to his credit.
“He was thrown into the fire,” Boehm said, “and he wasn’t really wanting to change anything.”
That’s different this year, Boehm said. He cited an 11-on-11 practice when he suggested making a change to prevent defenses from being tipped off and Ricker was comfortable with adjusting on the fly.
“With his trust in that, that’s awesome,” Boehm said. “We trust him 100 percent, and he trusts us 100 percent, and it’s going to be a fun season this year.”
The day McGovern met the newly hired Ricker was the day he partially tore his pectoral muscle trying to bench press 495 pounds.
“New coach, a starter with a torn pec two weeks before the season. It could have helped him. He came in with some adversity,” McGovern said. “I guess if you’re looking (for) a bright side to an injury, I got to help with his transition. I tried to coach as much as I could, because that helped me learn as well.”
McGovern has served as somewhat of a weight-lifting coach among the offensive linemen, customizing workout routines for his linemates.
“It’s my hobby,” said McGovern, whose father was a bodybuilder. “I don’t really enjoy video games. I don’t think I’ve played a video game since freshman year, so in my spare time, I’m trying to either work out or help people work out.”
He custom designed his own gym when his parents moved into a new house in Fargo, N.D., and weren’t sure what to do with the spacious basement.
“The fact that it looks like a dungeon is probably my favorite,” he said. “It just feels like the old-school bodybuilding gyms that are always in the rundown part of towns, and you just see concrete walls. It’s just like that. I like that aspect of it, and I just have all the weights I need.”
McGovern was approaching his attempt to set a team record with a 515-pound bench press when he was injured. He hasn’t tried a maximum bench press since the injury, and said he likely won’t try again to set the record. He is content with going after the team’s records for squats (800 pounds) and bench-press repetitions (42 reps of 225 pounds) — though the biggest number he’s keyed in on is wins.
“I’m a football player,” he said. “I’m not a weight-lifter. I have time after football to see how much I can bench and see how much I can squat and stuff. Right now it’s a hobby and a lifestyle. It’s happened to me (that I’ve been) close to the record, so if I’m feeling good that day, I’ll go for it. If not, it’s not the end of the world for me.”