Missouri, Texas A&M left tackles face challenges against SEC D-lines
The largest gap between the SEC and any other league is on the defensive line
Missouri's Elvis Fisher and Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel face stiff tests at left tackle
While their jobs have grown tougher, Fisher and Joeckel believe they are prepared
HOOVER, Ala. -- Though he has yet to play a game in the SEC, Missouri receiver T.J. Moe might have coined the league's next slogan. "They've also got prettier girls, the air's fresher and the toilet paper is thicker," Moe said Tuesday at the SEC's annual celebration of itself.
That pretty much covers the dominant off-field stereotypes -- although Moe might be sorely mistaken if he expects the bathrooms at The Swamp and Neyland Stadium to be stocked with triple-ply. On the field, the Tigers and their fellow newcomers from Texas A&M have been warned that the league's teams stock their rosters with fire-breathing, boulder-chewing monsters whose Ess Eee See Speed allows them to outrun Camaros. One popular game Tuesday involved counting the questions to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin that attempted to accurately gauge each man's level of fear as he enters the league that has won the past six national titles. Sample question to Pinkel: "Do you think that the Missouri family has a little bit of a chip on their shoulders because they've been told over and over that you've been playing JV football and now you're going to the big league."
Neither Pinkel nor Sumlin invoked Dan Hawkins, but they could have been forgiven if they'd paraphrased Hawkins thusly: "We played in the Big 12. It ain't intramurals, brotha."
Still, two of the newcomers who spoke Tuesday maintained a solemn and holy reverence for the league they are about to enter. Because while the defensive players and offensive skill players at Missouri and Texas A&M will see opponents quite similar to the ones they saw in the Big 12, the offensive linemen have entered another stratosphere. The largest gap between the SEC and the other leagues is on the defensive line. Among the SEC newbies, Tigers left tackle Elvis Fisher and Aggies left tackle Luke Joeckel have the most difficult jobs.
"In the Big 12, there were probably one or two on a D-line that you had to focus on," Fisher said. "Now, in the SEC, it's across the board. You just have to be prepared for more week-in and week-out."
This is not conjecture. This is not anecdotal evidence-turned-urban legend. The raw data -- not to mention the results of the past six BCS title games -- confirms that the pre-expansion SEC's geographic footprint produces a disproportionate share of elite defensive linemen. Fisher and Joeckel don't have to pore over population statistics to discover this. All they need do is click on the all-11 video of some of their new conference rivals.
In the past few weeks, Joeckel has studied the defensive ends he'll play this season. When he watched LSU, he couldn't look away from ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, who combined for 28˝ tackles for loss (including 17 sacks). "They're both speed guys who can get around the edge real fast," said Joeckel, a 6-foot-6, 310-pounder who is a favorite of NFL draftniks. "They're both technically sound and have great moves. It'll be a lot of fun blocking them."
Clearly, Joeckel is a masochist. A week after he tangles with Montgomery and Mingo, Joeckel will have more "fun" reacquainting himself with an old foe. In January 2010, Joeckel spent the Under Armour All-America Game matched up with end Corey Lemonier. "I did pretty well," Joeckel said. "He got me a few times in the first half. I had a much better second half." Lemonier, now at Auburn, has grown into one of the nation's most feared pass rushers.
Fisher, whose Tigers landed in the SEC East, will begin SEC play Sept. 8 against Georgia, which employs a 3-4 that frequently brings linebacker Jarvis Jones (13˝ sacks in 2011) off the edge with extreme prejudice. Two weeks later, Fisher will face South Carolina's twin towers, Jadeveon Clowney (6-6, 256) and Devin Taylor (6-8, 267).
Fisher, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA because of injury issues, knows all about SEC defenses. Growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., he cheered for Florida. The Gators recruited Fisher a bit, but never offered a scholarship. "I guess I wasn't good enough to play there," Fisher said with a laugh. "But I was good enough to be a Missouri Tiger, and that's good enough for me."
While Fisher made a point to show respect for the SEC's defensive linemen, he made it clear he does not fear them. "It is the best conference. Don't get me wrong," Fisher said. "But we weren't playing high-schoolers in the Big 12. [Former Texas star] Brian Orakpo. He's no joke. Aldon Smith on my own team. He's no joke."
Fisher has a point. He and Joeckel each saw some excellent pass rushers in the Big 12 -- usually on their own practice fields. Missouri has had a great recent run of defensive ends, from Ziggy Hood to current 49er Smith to Jacquies Smith (no relation) to current ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy. Joeckel, meanwhile, faced Big 12 sack leader Von Miller at practice as a freshman.
Fisher and Joeckel understand their jobs have grown more difficult, but they believe they're prepared. Bring on the prettier girls, the fresher air, the softer toilet paper and the nail-swallowing, cheetah-shaming defensive ends. "It's different football," Joeckel said. "It's fast. It's almost like NFL ball. But I think we can compete."