For years, it was said that Missouri was able to compete with the Oklahoma- and Texas-level programs at the skill positions, but they were still lacking in the trenches. That line of thinking was certainly given merit in the 2007-08 seasons, when Missouri went 22-2 versus teams not named Oklahoma and Texas but just couldn’t get the same type of push versus the Sooners and Longhorns. That’s what made Missouri’s 2010 win over Oklahoma so jarring and exciting: Mizzou dominated on the lines. They were opening bigger holes for their running backs than OU was, and they were getting more pressure on Landry Jones than the Sooners were able to generate on Blaine Gabbert. The same phenomenon took place in 2011 versus Texas; Missouri held its own versus a vicious Longhorn front four, and (with help from injuries to Texas backs) they were able to completely prevent Texas’ run game from getting established.
With that mission accomplished, Missouri now takes on an even larger challenge. They now move to a conference that, overall, is even better in the trenches. The offensive line returns quite a few interesting pieces; can we say the same about the defense? Or to put it another way, do they have enough interesting pieces, or are they vulnerable to depth issues?
Brad Madison (6’4, 265, Sr., Bethany, MO)
2009: 0.5 tackles, 2 PBU
2010: 26.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL (7.5 sacks), 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PBU
2011: 21.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL (4.5 sacks), 1 INT, 1 FF
RPT: Madison never looked right in 2011, and with all of the injury news that eventually came out, it’s not altogether surprising. Everyone will hope for a return to 2010 form, but I’ll be curious to see how Madison’s role evolves against SEC East competition. Could his quick first step actually create an issue against running games that require sound gap responsibility on defense? I trust a healthy Madison to beat guys outside. Even if healthy, is he capable of standing his ground straight on and/or capable of penetrating when crashing inside? Even in his best days in 2010, Madison was a bit of an all-or-nothing player. Missouri needs him to be a consistent presence on a defensive line that has question marks to address elsewhere.
The Beef: I really do wonder what average percentage Madison was able to play at for the entire season. I am guessing it was often at 50-60 percent, maybe even a little worse. Of course, the book was out on him a bit after the sneaky-good season of 2010, but I just don’t think he was EVER healthy. Getting him back on hold down one side will be big, but while I like him in the pass rush, I will be curious to see how he stacks up against in the run in a conference that may very well run it more than the Big 12 did.
Bill C.: Madison certainly wasn’t that bad in 2011 by any means, but the injury (and opponent adjustments) created a bit of a sophomore slump a year late. As RPT hinted above, Madison will have to prove two things simultaneously: that he can rush the passer like a high-level SEC end, and that he can prove disciplined when not simply rushing the passer. He and Kony Ealy each seem to have rather high ceilings, but he will need to establish himself very quickly. Like, in Week Two.
Michael Sam (6’3, 255, Jr., Hitchcock, TX)
2010: 17.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL (3.5 sacks), 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 Blocked Kick
2011: 22.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL (1.5 sacks), 1 INT, 1 PBU
Bill C.: Michael Sam has taken on a bit of a "pass rush specialist" role. He is 255 pounds, not 230, of course; but he tends to make himself known a lot more in an attacking role than in an every-down way. In two years as a reserve, he has made quite a few nice plays, but if he takes out Kony Ealy for a starting role, he will need to do a lot more than make one nice play per game.
The Beef: Lots of athleticism from Sam in what is becoming a solid career. With the exit of Jacquies Smith, he should likely be in a tight race for the #2 overall DE with Kony Ealy. I think Ealy has the higher upside, but Sam has figured out ways to make pretty solid contributions each of the last two years. I could see where he settles into the spot of "first off of the bench" and will continue to perform well.
RPT: Is it just me, or is Michael Sam putting together a very Xzavie Jackson-ish career so far? I’ll just wait for the pick-six.
Brayden Burnett (6’3, 245, Jr., Southlake, TX)
2010: 4.5 tackles
2011: 12.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL (2.5 sacks), 1 FF
The Beef: Color me surprised to see that Burnett had these type of stats. I suppose I don’t know what came when (i.e.: blowouts vs. close games), but it is nice to see him on the board the way he has been, if for no other reason than he comes from a high school where we would certainly like to keep the doors open to us by their alumni continuing to come up here and do well.
RPT: Now in his fourth year in the program, it still seems difficult to gauge what exactly Missouri has in Brayden Burnett. That could be a function of some of the depth Missouri has had above him or it could be a statement on Burnett’s skill set - we just don’t know. By all accounts, Burnett is the perfect depth end - he is seemingly adept in all key areas despite lacking one outstanding trait.
Bill C.: And that deficiency in the "one outstanding trait" category is why we assume he will always be a backup while the guy below him on this list surpasses him. (Actually, judging by the pre-spring depth chart, he already has.)
Kony Ealy (6’5, 260, So., New Madrid, MO)
2011: 9.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL (1 sack)
The Beef: What sort of off-season will Kony Ealy have? Is there more weight to put on to his frame? Probably a little. Is there more improvement to be found in his game? Certainly. Like I referenced above, I think his upside is higher than that of Sam, and if he can put that together between now and Sept, than I think he lines up opposite Madison come opening day.
RPT: If Ealy gets anywhere within even shouting distance of his ceiling in 2012, Missouri is going to have one hell of a defensive end. Comparisons to Aldon Smith are incredibly lazy, but everything about Kony Ealy’s game is conducive to that lazy comparison. He’s fluid. He’s explosive. And in what little we’ve seen, he seems to be instinctive. If he doesn’t supplant Sam or Madison, at the very least, he’s one hell of a changeup.
Bill C.: From a recruiting perspective, Kony Ealy was easily the most highly-rated of any of Missouri’s ends. Actually, he is the second most highly-touted end Gary Pinkel has landed, behind, of all players, Michael Keck. Comparisons to Aldon Smith might be lazy, but it is almost impossible to avoid them. Not only does Ealy seem to possess more pure athleticism and explosiveness than any other Mizzou end, but he also comes equipped with some attitude and personality. He didn’t have nearly the explosive redshirt freshman season that Smith had, however; he has some catching up to do in that regard. It certainly seemed that he was on the field a lot more in November than September, and with Madison still out with injury, he has found a spot on the first-team defense, but we still have no idea what level of consistency to expect from Ealy in 2012.
Shane Ray (6’3, 245, RS Fr., Shawnee Mission, KS)
The following was written before the pre-spring depth chart was released, with Ray still listed at 6’3, 225..
The Beef: Here is someone who I am hoping shows up on the initial spring rosters as 6’3, 240. 225 is just not really going to cut it (all more than likely) in my book. Let’s hope the freshman Gun Club has been a good experience for Ray and perhaps he is able to make a contribution this coming year, even if it is in mop-up duty.
The verdict: 245 pounds!
Bill C.: It is funny just how much stock we put into heights and weights. In regular human beings, the difference between 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-4 doesn’t really feel like much. (Unless you’re 5-foot-10, anyway.) And the difference between 230 and 240 is not altogether noticeable to the naked eye. But when we are looking at football players on paper, the differences are enormous. Shane Ray (the third-most highly touted end of the Pinkel era, by the way) at 245 pounds, with his supposed skill set -- monster motor, speed, etc. -- sounds like a lovely weapons for 2012, at least on passing downs. But at 230, we probably wouldn’t assume he’d see the field much at all. Ray is one of the players I am most interested in seeing in action at the Black & Gold Game.
RPT: At his best, he’s David Pollack. At his worst, he’s Marcus Malbrough. How’s that for a canyon of possibilities? He uses his hands extremely well, but as Beef mentioned, size may start becoming an issue here.
Derrion Thomas (6'2, 225, So., Lee's Summit, MO)
Bill C.: There is no reason to really expect much of Derrion Thomas, but one cannot help but list him for one simple reason: he is Derrick Thomas' son. That, and he selected a preferred walk-on spot at Missouri over the same at Alabama. He is light, and he spent most of last season injured, but in theory Missouri still has a spot for a fast pass-rush specialist if he is up for the challenge.
INCOMING: Rickey Hatley (6’4, 245, Fr., ***, Atlanta, TX)
Bill C.: Obviously I want Missouri to sign as many big-name blue-chippers as possible in the recruiting process. But nothing excites me more than that time in December or January, where we’ve limited our ‘expected targets’ list to just a few names, and then some random Texas kid with great measurables commits out of the blue. We’ve seen it many times through the years -- Danario Alexander, Sean Weatherspoon, Stryker Sulak, etc. (And yes, there have been plenty of duds, too.) You don’t want too many of these guys, but I’m all for 2-3 of them per year. (We’ll see how much this changes with the SEC-based shift of recruiting priorities.) I know nothing about Rickey Hatley, other than the fact that he was indeed an out-of-the-blue commit, and that his highlight film is fantastic. And that’s good enough for me. Put another 10 pounds on him, and for all we know he’ll be a contributor this fall.
The Beef: Hatley completely smacks of the hidden Texas gem we have been so good at identifying, and I am somehow guessing that even though I am the first one to write something on him, that I was not the last to make that comparison.
RPT: I saw Pacquiao knock him out once.