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September 16, 2008

For Tigers, it starts up front

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Chase Daniel wakes up on Sunday morning and it is just like any other day. And for a college football player, that's a very good thing.

"I'm going out of the game coming in on Sunday like, 'Man I'm feeling fresh,' just relaxed and not really any bruises on me," Daniel said. "That's a direct correlation to our offensive line play."

Missouri is putting up video game like offensive numbers. Daniel is leading the Heisman race according to most people. Jeremy Maclin is in the discussion too. Chase Coffman may be the best tight end in the nation. All three of those players are in the top three at their position according to Rivals.com's latest power rankings. But none of them are the key to the offense.

That would be the five guys up front, whose names you may never hear on Saturday. The Missouri offensive line has been stellar through three games.

"I'm very pleased with that," Gary Pinkel said. "If it's not working there, the other stuff doesn't work. You can have the greatest quarterback, greatest running back…"

The Tigers lead the nation in both scoring and total yardage. Daniel has been sacked only twice. One of those came on a play when two of his primary receivers went down with injuries on the same snap.

"That's definitely one of our number one goals is no one hits the quarterback," said right guard Kurtis Gregory. "Whether it be a sack or after he carries out a fake or anything, we don't want him to be hit."

And very rarely has it happened. The line has played well under any circumstance. But considering that was the one area many fans and followers of the team questioned throughout the summer, perhaps the performance has been even more remarkable.

"The key was can Elvis Fisher come in and play that position and then keep all the other areas solid and not be moving players around. That has enabled us to do that and you have to recognize him for playing at the level he's playing," Pinkel said. "Offensive linemen are very difficult to find, certainly tackles what we ask them to do. A freshman playing (Dan Hoch) and a redshirt freshman (Fisher), it's nice to have."

Perhaps the only people who seem unsurprised by the play of the line are the linemen themselves.

"We felt like we had a chance to be really good. After spring ball we worked together a lot," said right tackle Colin Brown. "Tim (Barnes) is not a young guy, he's been around here a number of years and we knew what to expect out of him. Elvis has played as good, if not better, than we thought. We're all good friends and it's just something that kind of clicked."

Perhaps the biggest shock to Brown is that he's a part of such a group. Five years ago, unsure which direction to take his college career, he decided to walk on at Mizzou from tiny Braymer, MO. At 6-foot-8, Pinkel knew he had a big body, but he didn't know if he had anything beyond that.

"When he first came in, he looked good. He always looked good," Pinkel said. "I knew he would look good walking off the bus, maybe intimidate (our opponents). Whether he could play football or not, I didn't know that."

Neither, to be honest about it, did Brown.

"I remember I was talking to my dad about a week before I showed up I was talking to him about what I was going to do if I showed up and I was absolutely the worst player," Brown remembered. "It was something I thought might last a season, maybe two. I really thought this would be completely over my head and I'd never even be good enough to have a chance to even compete."

Brown has gone from an unknown walk-on to a reserve to a starter to what Daniel called the "cornerstone" of a unit that anchors perhaps the best offense in college football.

"This is beyond what I ever imagined."

He's not alone. The line is proving everybody wrong right now.

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