Meet Elvis Fisher, Jason Palmgren, Austin Wuebbels and Dan Hoch. They are the sultans of the spread, the protectors of pride and the nurturers of a new-found leader. They are the four battle-hardened seniors that will man the two sides of the Missouri football offensive line for a final season this fall, and they couldn’t any more love the vicious game they play as one.
Between them on the field, the four combine for 105 career starts. Elsewhere, they share memories and laughs that create an unquantifiable bond. They may appear in uniform no more than a unit of teammates with a common job; but behind the helmets and shoulder pads lie a quartet of big men who love, among many things, their position, their role and their long journey together.
“We’re like brothers,” right guard Wuebbels said. “I trust them with everything.”
The foursome has done just about everything together since individually finding their way onto the first team offense at different times during the last three seasons. They have blocked for a 1,000-yard running back, two All-Big 12 Conference quarterbacks and All-Americans at both the wide receiver and tight end positions.
Along the way, a jovial bond formed, elevating their college experience with a layered web of companionship both on and off the Faurot Field gridiron. Right tackle Hoch has played next to right guard Wuebbels since the two first set foot on the Missouri practice field. Wuebbels now rooms with fellow guard Palmgren. All three of them look up to left tackle Fisher, a team captain for the 2011 season who returns the high regard to his fellow linemen.
“We all know what we’re doing; the communication is easy,” Palmgren said. “We all know our jobs and we all know how we react in different situations.”
The four now hold an off-the-field relationship comparable to the teamwork they exhibit on the field. When they aren’t fending off blitzing linebackers or paving away interior defenders, the teammates go out to eat, hit up the movies and show off their cannon ball skills in a nearby swimming pool.
“The o-linemen are usually the fat kids that like to stay together,” Wuebbels said.
The offensive line’s contributions to one of the top spread passing attacks in the Big 12 over the last three years have not gone unnoticed. The three seniors that have multiple years of starting experience – tackles Fisher and Hoch (40 starts each) and right guard Wuebbels (26 starts) – each received All-Big 12 recognition in 2010 to add to some previous awards and notoriety.
“Since we’ve been here, this is the most experienced group we’ve had,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “We have four returning starters and all really good players too. We’re very fortunate… We just want those guys to have the best year they’ve ever had.”
Despite their rare seasoning, the four aren’t taking any time off from their relentless work on the field. The four players have gone back to work in preseason camp, though the group will be reduced to three for the foreseeable future. Fisher went down with a knee injury during Monday’s practice that Pinkel labeled as “serious” and looks to miss significant time for the first time in his career.
Despite the setback, the group continues to do what it can to improve its game. The departure of two-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert to the NFL presents the veterans with a new challenge: protecting sophomore new-comer James Franklin.
“Obviously, the o-line is trying to do all they can and more to protect James,” Hoch said. “We have all of the confidence in him in the world, but it’s one of those things where the more time we buy him the better he’s going to look and the more confidence he’s going to have, which we’re going to need for the bigger games.”
As the offensive line provides opportunities for Franklin to operate Missouri’s pass-heavy attack, the young quarterback will have his fresh pick of talented targets. Tight end Michael Egnew and slot receiver TJ Moe have both been named to national preseason watch lists. Outside wide receivers Wes Kemp and Jarrell Jackson both return to their roles. Every running back returns to the roster. Every one of them knows exactly how important this experienced group of linemen is to their collective success.
“We may not get the same amount of praise as everybody else but our teammates sure as heck respect us,” Fisher said.
The personal pride of silently paving the way for others to succeed was what each lineman noted as his fuel to play the game.
“We come out and we just grind,” Fisher said. “We work hard every day. We hit each other, we get into fights, we’re bleeding, (with) broken bones and stuff. You’ve got to be tough to play offensive line. There’s a lot of pride that goes along with that.”
In their final season of hard hitting at Faurot Field, the four veterans will welcome a new member to their big-bodied clan. The hole left by All-Big 12 center Tim Barnes’ graduation will be filled by junior Travis Ruth, a relentless and passionate worker whom Pinkel has praised for fighting with all he has to be the best he can be.
He’s well on his way to fitting right in.