COLUMBIA — Matt Hoch wasn’t quite sure what to say.
How do you tell someone who you care for that it’s over? That you’re leaving them for someone else? How can you do all that, and then see that person every day and act as though nothing happened?
It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t done without a significant amount of thought, but Hoch finally told Missouri receivers coach, Andy Hill, the truth.
His career as a tight end was over. He was moving to defense.
Hoch, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound player from Harlan, Iowa, played his redshirt season in 2010 as a tight end on the scout team. Even while catching passes on offense, though, the defensive coaches kept a close eye on the former high school linebacker and defensive end.
Hoch was bulkier than a lot of the tight ends in Missouri’s program. He wasn't able to beat linebackers down the field with the ease of a Michael Egnew or Chase Coffman. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who had seen Hoch play on the defensive side of the ball during high school camps, saw an opportunity to gain a prospect without looking outside the program.
“When he was a tight end, I would say he wasn’t quite cut the way our tight ends are. We kept talking about it, and he said, ‘Well, maybe I could play defensive end.’ He talked to Coach Hill about it,” Kuligowski said.
The sit-down resulted in Hill’s reluctant blessing, as Hoch moved to what Kuligowski affectionately calls “the dark side.” But while the physical transition wasn’t too difficult for Hoch, he had to come to terms with a new set of goals.
He would never catch a pass down the seam, shedding smaller safeties and dragging helpless SEC defenders into the end zone. He wouldn’t hear the buzz of the crowd inside Faurot Field after a reception, the fans calling his name as he flipped the ball nonchalantly to the referee.
On the defensive side — a more in-the-trenches grind – he would have to make sacrifices in order to move forward.
“I always thought it was a possibility, but I obviously thought I would be a tight end originally. That changed. It was a little tough at first, definitely, because I wanted to score touchdowns,” Hoch said jokingly, able to laugh about it now. “Eventually I got over it and decided to like it.”
He started at defensive end, but an inconvenient broken foot at the end of 2011 resulted in another jump to the inside. While he was off his feet, the soon-to-be defensive tackle did what many suffering similar injuries do naturally – gain weight.
But in this case, the added weight came with a purpose.
“I’d probably eat five or six times a day, and it was up to 4,000-5,000 calories. It was a bunch of good foods and high-level proteins,” Hoch said, a wry smile appearing on his face.
To understand just how much food he was consuming daily, consider that Hoch would have had to eat just more than nine Big Macs every day to reach 5,000 calories. And while he insists “high-level proteins” didn’t include excessive fast food, the quantity of meals definitely paid off.
“I packed it on, ate as much as I could,” Hoch said glowingly.
With the departures of starting defensive tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno, Hoch arrived on the scene at the right time. He finished spring camp at the top of the depth chart at the nose tackle position, showing perhaps the most improvement of any player in camp.
His success is largely because of his relentless focus. During practice, he rarely talks to anyone, seemingly lost in his own world. When he approaches a drill, though, a light comes on.
As the defensive linemen took turns pushing back a tackling sled Wednesday, Hoch stood in line quietly. One after another, his teammates attacked the sled, sending it reeling backward but still upright.
When it was finally his turn, Hoch crouched low, digging his right hand into the grass. Without warning, he exploded into the sled, driving his feet forward and sending the heavy metal object reeling in reverse. In one last surge, he threw his body weight at the sled, knocking it over on its side.
“Wooo! Ahhhhh!” Hoch yelled emphatically, looming over the defeated sled like a predator standing over his fallen prey. It was the only sound he made all practice.
Now, firmly positioned in the middle of Missouri’s defensive line, the focused younger brother of former Tigers’ offensive lineman Dan Hoch tries not to think about what could have been if he had remained a tight end.
But while the route running, passcatching and daily encounters with Hill are in the past, he still can’t help but dream of galloping triumphantly into the end zone.
“There’s always a possibility. If I’m out there and I drop (into coverage) I could possibly run across the path of a receiver and take it,” he said, raising his hands to imitate catching a pass. “So I’m looking forward to it if it does happen some time, just running as far as I can in the opposite direction.”