COLUMBIA — Dan Hoch was ready.
He was the first true freshman lineman to see playing time in Gary Pinkel's tenure as head coach, and that experience last season had brought him to this point.
The tens of thousands of fans at the Edward Jones Dome expected for Missouri's Sept. 5 season opener wouldn't be a problem. He had already been through his "wow" moment. He wouldn't be overwhelmed.
And then it happened.
During an inside run drill at the Aug. 18 practice, a player rolled into Hoch's left knee. The now-sophomore starting right tackle felt the knee buckle, and after he picked himself up off the ground, tightness immediately formed. The MRI that was done later that night revealed that Hoch had sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee.
In the week since the injury, Hoch has been rehabbing the knee with the Missouri training staff. An optimistic Pinkel has been hoping Hoch returns for the Tigers' season opener against Illinois, and it looks possible. Pinkel said Hoch should return to practice this weekend and will be back in full action by Tuesday at the latest. The challenge now is for Hoch to regain the mental and physical comfort he had before the injury took place.
The first step of that process is Hoch's involvement with Rex Sharp and the Missouri training staff. A sprained MCL is no small injury, but from the start Hoch said that Sharp had encouraged him to believe in his ability to get back.
"All I know is positive things about Rex and his staff," Hoch said. "What he's been doing with my knee, you can't doubt anything he does. He has high expectations. He puts confidence in you that you can get back."
In recent days Hoch has progressed to jogging up and down the sideline while the rest of the team goes through drills. MCL sprains can be challenging for offensive linemen, who must deal with lateral movement, especially in pass blocking. Hoch said he will need to feel more comfortable about that element of his game before Sept. 5. So far, the progress has been quicker than he expected.
"I've only had two days without the immobilizer," Hoch said of a device placed on his leg to prevent it from bending. "Even from yesterday, I'd say I've improved quite a bit."
Hoch said that before the injury, the chemistry between the team's offensive line was its biggest strength. Hoch credits senior guard Kurtis Gregory with helping to introducehim to the program last season and said he has developed a strong connection with the linemen since then.
It's that interaction, and developing an even greater continuity with his fellow linemen, that Hoch said is the thing he has missed the most.
"Just time with the guys, getting reps with them," Hoch said. "I've been watching quite a bit, trying to get those mental reps. But being out there with them is what's most important."