Meet 'massive' Chris McClellan, Missouri football's potentially pivotal new defensive tackle (2024)

Owasso High always made sure the first person it sent off the team bus first before games was the same person.

Chris McClellan.

There’s a pretty simple reason.

McClellan, a new Missouri football transfer at defensive tackle, now stands at 6 foot 3, 320 pounds. When he transferred to Owasso, a high school north of Tulsa, Oklahoma, for his senior season, he wasn’t a great deal smaller.

Put yourself in the coaching staff’s shoes. Who would you want your opponent to see first?

“(It's like) a giant over a baby,” then-Owasso defensive coordinator Antonio Graham told the Tribune. … “No matter what, we want to make sure these guys see (McClellan) first, so make sure you sit up front so you can get off the bus first.

“We just thought that was intimidating, and then the way he played on the field was more intimidating.”

McClellan was a big get for Mizzou last December, too, as he swapped SEC schools by transferring to the Tigers after two seasons at Florida.

That’s because he could be filling an important role in Columbia.

Mizzou is a little light on returning top-level reps on the interior of its defensive line. Of the four players who made up Missouri’s main rotation in 2023 —Kristian Williams; Jayden Jernigan; Realus George Jr.; Josh Landry —only Williams returns.

The Tigers have in-house talents Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial seemingly on the cusp of cracking the two-deep, but the pair have just five collegiate appearances between them. Mizzou replenished in the offseason with three transfer tackles: McClellan; New Mexico State transfer Sterling Webb; and Georgia Tech transfer Eddie Kelly.

Of those three, it’s the former Gator who looks the most likely to take the starting role alongside Williams when Missouri opens its 2024 campaign Thursday, Aug. 29, at home against Murray State — a season that brings College Football Playoff aspirations to Columbia with the expanded, 12-team format.

More:Projecting Missouri football depth chart for 2024 season after spring transfer portal window

“He's a big athlete that moves extremely well,” MU interior defensive line coach Al Davis said during spring camp. “The style of defense is a little different (to Florida), so he has to get adjusted with his stance changing, playing out of a little bit more single-gap stuff. … His movement skills are great. He’s got some stuff that he needs to continue to work on, but it's been good having him around because we’re trying to replace a lot of depth.”

Meet 'massive' Chris McClellan, Missouri football's potentially pivotal new defensive tackle (2)

Good news for Mizzou: He has some history showing he can make quick adjustments.

Graham, now the head coach at Owasso, instantly saw the potential in the highly touted prospect.

After McClellan transferred to Owasso to pit himself against a stronger caliber of opponent in his final season of high school ball, heading from Class 5A to 6A, the tackle immediately showed he had the tools.

He was “massive,” in the words of current Owasso assistant head coach Asa Poteete, who primarily coaches tight ends. His size is a clear and obvious advantage from the jump. But McClellan also was quick off the mark, and already an accomplished run-stopper. There wasn't much questioning why he’d already picked up a slew of Power-conference offers.

“To be as massive as he is and just to be able to move the way he does, that kind of sets you apart,” Poteete said. … “I mean, coaching at this level, you see a lot of big kids. Not necessarily Chris-sized, but you see a lot of good-sized kids. But whenever you see them that big and then they can also move like he does? I mean, that's whenever you kind of just know, ‘hey, this kid's different.’

“I just didn't know creatures like this, at his age,” Graham said, “I didn't know these guys were around Tulsa.”

So, there was the challenge.

Graham posed the question to McClellan: What can Owasso do for you?

The lineman’s answer was simple. He wanted, Graham said, to get college ready.

The first part of that was getting the lineman used to some more advanced scheme.

Graham said McClellan could comfortably coast on his size at his previous school. Now, against the top level of the preps scene in northern Oklahoma and other D-I prospects, he had to show some versatility.

Blankenship was the former head coach at the University of Tulsa. The team had multiple former college coaches and a couple former NFL players on staff, including former Oklahoma State All-American Levy Adco*ck, who was McClellan’s position coach.

All that’s to say, when it came to learning the nuance of recognizing varying pass protections or picking up on what the offensive line is doing, he was in experienced hands.

The second part of Graham’s offer to McClellan: Making him more than just the biggest player on every field he visited.

Graham saw that he was naturally fast and aware that he could rush the passer, but as McClellan took the next step he needed more.

“I think when he got here he didn't know his full ability,” Graham said. “He wasn't used to using his hands. He was just trying to just bully people.”

Some of those habits lingered in the infant stages of his senior season.

Then, all of a sudden, it happened.

Meet 'massive' Chris McClellan, Missouri football's potentially pivotal new defensive tackle (3)

Week 4 of McClellan’s senior season rolled around, and Owasso was up against local rival Broken Arrow High. There had been some “tentative” performances to that point of the year. McClellan, Graham said, had been prone to “overthinking.”

Graham said the mission for that game was to make sure the opposing offensive linemen knew McClellan’s name by the end of the day.

“He got his first sack against a high-profile tackle, … and that's when we realized, ‘OK, it finally clicked for him,’” Graham said. … “Once we saw it, like, ‘OK, this kid’s gonna figure it out.”

From there, McClellan was the measuring stick as Owasso went on a run to the state title game.

If Poteete’s tight ends and linemen could get the better of the defensive lineman, that meant they were “doing something right” and it went down as a practice well done.

McClellan had the natural wingspan, Poteeet said, to make him hard to block. As the season progressed, he started to develop the ability to use his hands — swim moves; swipes — in the way that Graham had been working to add.

He still had the natural size to “run over” kids, but the lineman became more than just a bulldozer. McClellan became adept at zone blocking. Graham frequently played him at defensive end as he learned how to spill. Poteete even wheeled him out as a tight end, and he caught a third-and-2 pass for a nine-yard gain while, yes, swim-moving some kids out the way before a group of three brought him down.

“You saw all that improve,” Graham said. “By the playoffs, Chris was dominant.”

McClellan spent two seasons at Florida after that, heading to the Swamp over offers from Oklahoma, Alabama and Ohio State. While a Gator, he played in all 25 of the games Florida played while he was there, registering 46 tackles, including two sacks.

So, why give Gainesville up? Graham asked him the same thing, he said. He was the top recruit out of Oklahoma in his class, and Florida was a good choice at the time.

Blankenship is friends with Missouri’s special assistant to the head coach Rick Jones, according to Graham, who said he thinks the combination of relationships and a similar set of “morals” between MU and Owasso’s coaching staff were important factors. He said McClellan told him Mizzou just has “got it figured out.”

McClellan announced he was transferring to Missouri a few days before the Tigers won the Cotton Bowl to cap an 11-2 season last year. The defensive tackle frequently repped with the first team through his first spring camp in Columbia.

And he put in some overtime.

Meet 'massive' Chris McClellan, Missouri football's potentially pivotal new defensive tackle (4)

Over Missouri’s spring break, Graham looked out of his office window over the football field at Owasso.

There were students milling around the high school campus on the weekday morning. It was 10:30 a.m. and class was in session.

McClellan was there, too, running reps across the field.

The new MU defensive tackle is part of a position group, due to the lack of returning reps, that likely stands as one of the Tigers’ biggest question marks in a massive season. McClellan, like his new position coach mentioned, is tasked with learning an entirely new system and scheme to get ready.

So, back home, McClellan was back at work.

“A lot of kids just think that you just go out there and do it, but what people don't see is Chris is out here over the breaks, and he's supposed to be on vacation, but he's working up here at high school. He’s out here running by himself,” Graham said … “I look out there on the football field, … and he's out there running 110s by himself. I'm just like, that's awesome.”

“He is everything I thought he would be, if not more,” Graham added. “He has grown. … The kid is always working. That's the cool part about it — you can see that his hard work is actually paying off.”

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Meet 'massive' Chris McClellan, Missouri football's potentially pivotal new defensive tackle (2024)
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