Missouri loses a lot of experience in many key units, but in none are the more equipped to handle that change without losing a beat than they are at defensive end. There is a young, potentially great unit ready to develop here.
Jacquies Smith (Sophomore, 6'4, 240)
2008: 46 Tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 2 QB Hurries, 2 PBR
I admit it: I've got high expectations for Jacquies. By the end of his true freshman season, he was already outplaying Tommy Chavis and stealing quite a bit of playing time from him. He's got a good motor and first-step quickness, and yet he was also outstanding in run support in the Alamo Bowl. And the most exciting thing I heard about him this year was Gary Pinkel saying that Jacquieeeees could probably get up to the 255- to 265-pound range without losing any agility. In other words, he could be a pretty ridiculously good every-down player.
The playing time he got this year behind two seniors set him up nicely to take a Sean Weatherspoon-like leap his sophomore year if he's ready. I probably shouldn't set the bar at "Weatherspoon" level, but I'll set it a step below that.
Brian Coulter (Senior, 6'4, 255)
2008: 29 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 FF, 6 QB Hurries, 2 PBR
Ahh, the man, the myth, the Brian Coulter. No Mizzou fan had heard of Brian Coulter in mid-July, and about a day after he signed with the Tigers, he was going to be the difference maker, the guy who pushed Missouri over the top in the national title hunt. He was an unstoppable force, a combination of Justin Smith, Brian Smith, and Osi Umenyiora. He was the greatest defensive end ever to don a Mizzou uniform...before he actually donned a Mizzou uniform.
A bit unfair, to say the least.
In the end, it turns out Coulter was simply a quick defensive end who would take a little while to get used to playing at the D1 level. He's certainly a major potential pass-rush specialist--it sure didn't take him long to go from 0 sacks to 6.5 once he got rolling--but he was also prone to offsides penalties (two in the Alamo Bowl) and mental errors. At the very least, it appears that Coulter could be a serious passing downs weapon, and it wouldn't at all surprise me to see him get well into the double digits in sacks in '09. The main question for me is, is he an every-down player? Can he consistently stand up an offensive tackle on running plays? Will he be a non-passing downs liability? Will he make a Pig Brown-esque junior-to-senior leap, or will he be more of a Justin Garrett-esque "He is what he is" quantity?
I've said a couple times now that I expect Mizzou's pass defense to get better in '09 and its run defense to get worse. If the defense manages to get better overall, chances are that's because Brian Coulter took a major step forward.
Chris Earnhardt (Sophomore, 6'5, 245)
2008: 17 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 QB Hurries
I had the pleasure of meeting and watching Chris Earnhardt on his official recruiting visit back in 2006. He was quiet and withdrawn, to the point where Dave Christensen (his primary recruiter) was poking at him and trying to get him to loosen up a bit. I couldn't tell if he wasn't enjoying himself, or whether that was just his natural demeanor. Considering he committed to Mizzou that weekend, I guess it was his demeanor.
I couldn't shake the thought of his withdrawn personality out of his head recently when the rumors started swirling around that he either had quit the team or was going to quit the team soon. I'm trying not to read too much into one hour of exposure with the guy, but he seemed like the type who could get pretty down on himself if he wasn't contributing as much as he hoped he would. That's as far as I'll go with that line of thinking, though, as it really was limited exposure.
Earnhardt started out the season on the second-string and was the victim of Brian Coulter's surge for playing time. Each week down the stretch, when Gabe at PowerMizzou would report any depth chart changes, he would make not that Earnhardt was still on there despite the rumors. At this point, nobody outside of Earnhardt and the coaching staff (maybe) has any idea whether Earnhardt is going to be a part of the team for the next three years.
If he does come back, and I need to actually evaluate him as a player here, I'm not sure what to think. He did make a couple plays early in the year, but he didn't really assert himself, and it was no surprise that, when Coulter got up to speed a bit, he was a more valuable player even with the brain farts. Obviously I hope he comes back and makes me pay for doubting him, but right now it wouldn't surprise me if, even if he's on the 2009 roster, he's not on the first- or second-string.
Aldon Smith (RSFr, 6'5, 235)
Speaking of expectations...the Aldon Smith myth grew as the season progressed as well. Academically cleared late in August, when it was clear that it wasn't worth rushing him onto the field and wasting a redshirt, Smith supposedly was outstanding on the scout team this year and figures to factor heavily in the DE race when Spring Football begins.
Smith (I guess we're going to have to start using "J. Smith" and "A. Smith"...or just "Jacquies" and "Aldon") was Rivals' #5 player in Missouri in the 2008 recruiting class, ahead of Wes Kemp, Robert Steeples and other potential 2009 contributors. He has a great frame, and it wouldn't surprise me if he weighed in around the 250 mark this spring or summer. I'm not going to pretend to know what strengths or weaknesses he brings to the table...I'm just going to say that he's one of the reasons I'm excited about the '09 DE corps.
Marcus Malbrough (RSFr, 6'5, 225)
It seems that most defensive ends show up as true freshmen on the skinny side, and Marcus Malbrough's certainly not an exception in that regard. You never know which of the skinny DEs will be able to work their way toward the 250-pound mark (a la Stryker Sulak) and who will top out around 235 (a la Brian Smith), but hopefully it's the former. Brian Smith made it work because he was ridiculously quick, but he was the exception rather than the rule. I heard a few good things about Malbrough this fall, and I think it speaks loudly toward the quality of the 2008 recruiting class that he was the fourth-best DE newcomer this year.
Sheldon Richardson (6'4, 290, St. Louis, MO)
In discussing the 2009 defensive ends, there's a rather large elephant in the room...and he's got an extremely quick first step. As I mentioned in the tight ends preview, Sheldon Richardson, Rivals' #4 player in the country, could possibly walk in the door and start at TE, DE or DT in the fall, and while those expectations are possibly unfair, the dude is impressive, and he showed it in the US Army All-American game.
The main question with SR, as expressed previously, is where he'll play. He has expressed a desire to avoid the defensive tackle position for some reason, and even if he were to end up there, it appears he won't start there. I'd say the smart money is on Richardson playing defensive end in 2009, and while we can speculate that he'll make an Atiyyah Ellison-like move toward the middle of the D-line when all is said and done, we shouldn't assume it. For all we know, he could set up shop as a 275-pound DE, stay there and thrive.
Best case scenario for 2009: Richardson becomes a solid every-down DE, and Brian Coulter is able to specialize on the passing downs pass rush. Richardson, Coulter and the Smiths make for a hellacious DE unit. That's my happy place.
Brayden Burnett (6'3, 240, Southlake, TX)
Watch Burnett's YouTube highlights below, and you'll come to two conclusions pretty quickly: 1) dude's got a motor, and 2) dude's always in the right place. It's hard to gauge upside, but Burnett was in pretty high demand (offers from Wisconsin, Cal, Michigan State, and Kansas, among others) because of what seems like his every-down potential. With the likely depth at this position, Burnett is about 98% likely to redshirt, and it looks like he should be able to handle some more weight, meaning he'll start 2010 as a 250-255 pound redshirt freshman.
Terrance Lloyd (6'4, 230, Stratford, TX)
There really hasn't been much (if any) video released on Lloyd, who chose Mizzou over OSU, ATM, and others, and recently quashed rumors that he was thinking about looking around at other schools before Signing Day. He appears to be more in the "pass rush specialist" model, but that's pure speculation.
Ty Phillips (6'2, 265, E. St. Louis, IL) & Marvin Foster (6'2, 265, Ft. Worth, TX)
Two high school defensive ends who are possibly quick enough to play DE but, in my happy place, put on 25 pounds and end up in the interior of the D-line, Phillips and Foster are two guys I'm quite excited about...we just have a potential glut at DE, and their routes to playing time will probably be at DT, if they can hold weight anyway.
It doesn't appear that there are any more potential DE recruits on the radar screen for this class.
2008 vs 2009
As I mentioned earlier, of all the inexperienced units we have to worry about in 2009, this one appears to be the deepest and most talented. There's always a concern when you replace a 4-year contributor like Stryker Sulak, along with an underrated guy like Tommy Chavis (who didn't have a high-flying end to his career), but the two major returnees could be studs in certain roles, and there is a lot of athleticism entering the picture. This isn't intended to be a "get pumped about 2009...all is well!!!" series, and I hope I proved that by worry about the lack of a #1 WR on Saturday, but that said I can't really hide my enthusiasm about this group. They're young, relatively unproven, and very, very exciting.
2009 Mizzou DEs on the YouTubes
It's hard to find many good DE montages on the YouTubes...not really a "highlight package" position. This is all I've got.