If the Missouri Tigers are to be as successful in 2014 as they were in 2013, they’ll undoubtedly need another great performance from their defensive line. It won’t be a piece of cake, as starting defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, who combined for 19.5 sacks and and 33 tackles for loss, are now gone to the NFL. But with a returning group that collectively notched 18.5 sacks last season, it’s safe to say that the D-line is Mizzou’s strongest position group heading into the season.
The group will be headlined by 6-foot-3, 260-pound redshirt senior Markus Golden, who was fantastic in his first year as a defensive lineman in 2013, picking up 6.5 sacks, 13 tackles for loss, and 55 total tackles, the most among any Tiger defensive lineman. After seeing time last year as a rotational player behind Ealy and Sam, Golden will be counted on as a full-time starter and one of the leaders of the defense in 2014. His quickness and athleticism, which allowed him to play running back in high school and linebacker for a year with the Tigers, should greatly benefit him as he spars with the tough offensive tackles of the SEC.
Opposite Golden will be 6-foot-3, 245-pound junior Shane Ray. Ray had a great season in his own right, registering 4.5 sacks, nine tackles for loss, and most importantly returning a fumble for a touchdown that sealed a Cotton Bowl victory for Mizzou. He’ll look to bring a speed rushing presence from the right side of the Tigers’ line.
The biggest challenge for defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski will be replacing Golden and Ray with new rotational pass rushers. A tandem of backup defensive ends that can deliver 11 sacks is not that easy to find, and he’ll have to examine his depth to find new ones. The two ends behind Golden and Ray at last depth chart update were redshirt freshmen Charles Harris and Marcus Loud. Though Harris and Loud will be raw, they both have the chance to be good players, especially with a coach as highly-regarded as Kuligowski.
The 6-foot-3, 235-pound Harris was a high school basketball star who has added plenty of strength since getting to Mizzou. The coaching staff has hopes that he’ll be able to translate that basketball athleticism into pass-rushing prowess this year. Loud, meanwhile, is built very similarly to the recently-departed Ealy, and he may be able to provide the power-rushing presence off the edge that the Tigers lost with Ealy’s early declaration for the draft.
If Harris and Loud aren’t ready for primetime quite yet, the Tigers could turn to junior college transfer Eddie Heard Jr., who committed to the Tigers in late May. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder will need to get integrated to the Tigers’ system quickly if he wants to contribute immediately, but with a year of JUCO experience under his belt, he could end up being a safer option than Harris and Loud. Walk-on Eddie Serrano might play into the equation as well after having a quality spring. For what it’s worth, Mizzou will also add 2014 recruits Walter Brady, Rocel McWilliams, and Spencer Williams, though all of them will likely need at least a year in the weight room before they’re ready to contribute on the field.
At defensive tackle, the Tigers will be stacked, featuring at least four players who could make a legitimate argument to start at most Division I schools. Two redshirt seniors, 6-foot-5, 295-pound Matt Hoch and 6-foot-2, 305-pound Lucas Vincent, are listed as the starters to enter the season, but 6-foot-3, 290-pound redshirt sophomore Harold Brantley and 6-foot-4, 300-pound Josh Augusta, who played last year as a true freshman, have just as much or more talent than the starters.
Hoch was the best pass rusher of the group in 2013, picking up three sacks. His exceptional size and strength will give fits to offensive linemen. Brantley, however, may have the most upside. He showed great run-stuffing ability as a part-time player last year, registering 30 total tackles and five tackles for loss. Vincent and Augusta showed some quality pass rushing ability as well, picking up 2.5 and 2 sacks, respectively.
Beyond the first four, two other players who could see some playing time in 2014 are redshirt freshman Nate Crawford and redshirt sophomore Rickey Hatley, both of whom have the potential to provide a quality rush from the interior. A.J. Logan, DeQuinton Osborne, and Evan Winston are also scholarship players who are pretty far down the depth chart but could potentially contribute in the future.