COLUMBIA — Brad McNulty can tell you it isn’t easy being thrown into a game in the middle of the second quarter, forced to lead a battered offensive line in your college debut.
It’s even harder when you’re missing a shoe.
Entering Missouri's home game against Arizona State (2-0) on Saturday, there were a few notable changes on the Tigers' depth chart.
- With left tackle Elvis Fisher out indefinitely with a sprained right MCL, the offensive line has shifted significantly. Mitch Morse, formally the center, will start at right tackle. Justin Britt, who was the right tackle, will move to left tackle, and redshirt freshman Brad McNulty will start at center. Evan Boehm and Max Copeland are still listed as starters at the two guard positions.
- Senior Jack Meiners, who was listed as the starting right guard in fall camp, is listed as questionable heading into the game. He sprained his left knee in Missouri's final preseason scrimmage and has been working to get back ever since. He was also listed as questionable last week but did not play. If he does come back, Copeland will likely be bumped out of a starting role.
- Senior weakside linebacker Zaviar Gooden is listed as out after hurting his hamstring in the loss to Georgia. Donovan Bonner, who played significant minutes in the Georgia game and came away with an interception, will start in his place.
That was the situation McNulty, a redshirt freshman from Allen, Texas, found himself in during Missouri’s 41-20 loss to Georgia on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
With about five minutes left in the second quarter, left tackle Elvis Fisher, a sixth-year senior, crumpled to the turf after suffering a sprained MCL in his right knee. Fisher had spent last season recovering from a torn left patellar tendon.
Immediately, coach Gary Pinkel adjusted his offensive line for what he called the “worst case scenario.” Mitch Morse, a sophomore who had been playing center, moved to right tackle. Justin Britt, formerly the right tackle, switched sides to left tackle. And McNulty, who had been watching it all from the sidelines, was called on to play center.
McNulty says it’s hard to describe what he was feeling when he saw Fisher, his roommate and the line’s leader, lying on the turf. He had little time to worry, and no time to panic.
“I just thought, ‘Oh, no.’ Coach Walker turned to me and said, ‘Brad, you’re up. Get out there.’”
McNulty held his own, calling out plays and making consistent shotgun snaps to quarterback James Franklin. But as if the Georgia defense wasn’t enough of a challenge, another unforeseen obstacle popped up in the third quarter.
While the Missouri offense was driving down the field, left guard Evan Boehm stepped on McNulty’s left shoe. The shoe popped off midplay, leaving McNulty to consider his options.
Either attempt to put the shoe on and inhibit the progress of his fast-paced, no-huddle offense or lose the shoe and proceed with nothing but a sock.
McNulty, thinking fast, put his offense first.
“I just thought, ‘Well, we got to go fast here. I don’t have time to sit on the field and put my shoe on,''' he said. “So I just took it and chucked it to the sideline.”
After the play, Boehm looked down and realized the quandary Missouri’s new center found himself in. It was even worse, he said, when you consider the guy on the other side of the line.
“I looked at him and I was like, ‘Wait.’ I looked at his foot and he didn’t have a shoe on,” Boehm said. “And we’ve got big (John) Jenkins over us, and he’s a player. When you’ve got 358 pounds coming at you and only one shoe on, you’ve got to be kind of nervous.”
In those tense moments, the outside pressures faded away for McNulty. He wasn’t obsessing over the athleticism on Georgia’s defense or considering the consequences of producing a bad snap.
With Jenkins, the Bulldogs' 358-pound nose tackle, rumbling towards him every play, his concerns centered solely on the exposed left foot.
“Just don’t get your foot stepped on,” he thought. “Thank God, it didn’t happen.”
Although it seemed like a lifetime, McNulty only went shoeless for two plays. Eventually, he was able to retreat to the sideline and replace his cleat. He played the rest of the game without losing any equipment, while also proving to himself and his coaches that he is capable of coming into a hostile environment and competing on the line.
“You talk about a redshirt freshman, coming into an environment like that? Maybe it was good that he didn’t know he was going to play. Maybe that was a plus,” Pinkel said. “But he showed a tremendous amount of poise. He played well.”
Boehm, whose right foot was partially responsible for McNulty’s shoe debacle, said the team didn’t miss a beat when the redshirt freshman entered the game. McNulty called plays, recognized coverages and identified blitzers, just like a starting center should.
“He came out there and he was calling the plays. He was doing everything Mitch (Morse) was doing out there,” Boehm said. “It was cool seeing that the communication was still there.”
Heading into Saturday’s game against Arizona State, McNulty is expected to make his first college start at center. And while he might lack experience, Boehm at least knows there’s no need to doubt his toughness.
“It would have hurt real bad if he would’ve got stepped on, but that was a chance he was willing to take.” Boehm said. “It just shows the competitiveness we have across the offensive line.”