Oct. 2, 2009
By MOISEKAPENDA BOWER
Owls junior Scott Mitchell has made 22 consecutive starts at left tackle, so forgive him for those initial bouts of frustration expressed when he shifted to right tackle in the second half at Oklahoma State on Sept. 19.
"You're still playing the same position but everything flips," Mitchell said, almost exasperatedly. "All the plays flip, so a 40 to a 41 now has completely different meaning. Before maybe I would hear 40 and go, `Boom, I've got it.' Now I have to go, `Oh, 40? Wait, flip it then do it.'
"Now all my footwork is backward. Instead of changing direction and going to the right I have to change direction and go to the left. I'm used to making a call on the left, which is different on the right, so I have to think about it before I say it. So I'm a little bit slower."
These are problems that only an offensive lineman can understand. On Saturday night against Tulsa (3-1, 1-0 Conference USA) at Historic Rice Stadium, Mitchell will make his first career start at right tackle after seeing emergency playing time there in each of the past two games.
Two weeks ago in Stillwater, Okla., the Owls (0-4, 0-1) lost the right side of their line to injury when guard Jake Hicks (foot) and tackle Tyler Parish (concussion) were sidelined. Mitchell, the most experienced of the linemen, replaced Parish and was supplanted by Kody Emmert as Eric Ball filled in for Hicks. Ball started last week against Vanderbilt.
Parish returned to action against the Commodores but Ball was lost to a high ankle sprain. Cameron Vester plugged the gap left by Ball, but given two days to reconfigure his offensive line, Rice coach David Bailiff decided to shift Parish inside to guard and keep Mitchell at right tackle.
"They're both very gifted athletes," Bailiff said of Mitchell and Parish, a third-year sophomore who will make his first career start at right guard after seven starts at right tackle. "They have an understanding of the calls and the schemes. It's what gives them the ability to play fast."
To hear Mitchell explain it, the shift to the opposite side of the line isn't as easy as it sounds, even for someone with his considerable talents. His concerns over foot placement and remembering his dominant arm are legitimate, but Bailiff trusts Mitchell so deeply that he expressed nary a concern. Being a true perfectionist, Mitchell just wants to get it right.
"Before Oklahoma State I never practiced right tackle, so I never had any sets done and I'd never done any of the footwork," Mitchell said. "Last week when we played Vanderbilt I practiced left and right, but this week I've just been practicing right. So I've had a week to work with it and get used to it, so I should be a lot more comfortable when the game comes."
For Parish, the challenge comes in working out of a three-point stance and managing the physicality that comes with blocking defensive tackles rather than defensive ends, a task that could result in having to grapple with someone 30 pounds heavier that he is accustomed to.
"It's very unique and it takes someone that's very athletic to do it," Bailiff said. "The steps are different, your leverage is different (and) you don't operate in space anymore. The game actually changes a lot from that position, that's why it takes somebody that's athletic and tough because when you play guard it's a more physical game than at tackle."
Said Parish: "It's been a little difficult adjusting to the nuances at guard, but for the most part playing right tackle and bumping in one position hasn't been too difficult because I used to make all the calls with Jake anyway. (But) putting your hand on the ground is a little different."
The nuances may give Mitchell and Parish reason to pause, but neither if fretful. Their time served in the trenches will benefit both when the Owls attempt to cobble together scoring drives. Mitchell and Parish have been down this path before, it's just that the footsteps are altered.
"Having game experience and knowing what the guard is going to do anyways (helps)," Parish said. "Just making the same calls at guard instead of tackle is a little weird. (But) I'm not going to be shell shocked."