Time to the move to the defensive side of the ball.
Offensive Guards and Centers
It is amazing to think about the success Missouri has had recently when it comes to recruiting and/or developing defensive ends. Not too long ago, in 2006, a hip injury to Brian Smith almost completely wrecked the Missouri defense, kick-starting a significant defensive slide over the last portion of the season. But in 2010, when Aldon Smith suffered a stress fracture and missed a series of games, the Mizzou defense somehow got … better. Agent Smith’s injury meant that by the end of the year, the Tigers had four ends they trusted significantly, and a good portion of Missouri’s 10-win campaign can be attributed to Mizzou’s success in the trenches.
Heading into 2011, what could be seen as a scary situation -- the Tigers lose a likely first-round pick in A. Smith -- has been met with relative ambivalence from Missouri fans. "Sure, we’d have preferred he stay … but look who’s coming back!"
Jacquies Smith (6’4, 255, Sr., Dallas, TX)
2010: 28.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR, 3 PBU, 1 Blocked Kick
2009: 31.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU
2008: 34.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU
Bill C.: Just call Jacquies Smith the Cris Carter of collegiate defensive ends. All he does is make big plays. He averaged barely over two tackles per game in 2010, but almost half of them went for a loss, and he had a hand in either forcing or recovering four fumbles. Plus, he broke up three passes and blocked a kick. In his Mizzou career, Smith has not yet logged even 100 tackles, but he has scored on a fumble return, interception return and, in 2009, a touchdown pass.
More than any other player, Jacquies really stepped up in Aldon Smith’s mid-season absence. Five of his ten tackles for loss came in those three games against Miami (Ohio), Colorado and Texas A&M. If that is how he chooses to perform in Aldon’s more permanent 2011 absence, I don’t think any of us will complain. Smith is well-rounded and athletic, and entering his senior season, the final challenge will be for Jacquies to show up in every game. He had the tendency to disappear at times, and with Mizzou’s incredible end depth, that wasn’t too much of a problem. But if he wants to keep his spot atop the depth chart, he will need to continue to develop in this regard.
RPT: I think Bill just about covered it. When you hear from Jacquies Smith, you HEAR from Jacquies Smith. Looking back, it’s not altogether surprising what he has become. His high school tape displayed an incredible athlete who relied upon a dazzling blend of agility and quickness rather than on technique and strength. He’s steadily grown into being a "true" defensive end, and it really is a testament to both the program’s coaching AND recruiting that Smith went from being the "high upside athlete" of the ends as a freshman to the "steadying presence" (consistency notwithstanding) as a senior.
Brad Madison (6’4, 255, Jr., Bethany, MO)
2010: 26.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 2 PBU
2009: 0.5 tackles, 2 PBU
RPT: Each year, Bill and I seem to both put together mental lists of "players without positions" (Godspeed, Gilbert Moye). One year ago, I was relatively convinced Brad Madison would toil away on this list for his career. Now I’m quite pleased to say I stand corrected. There’s always talk about a receiver switching to defensive back having an advantage because they can often read offenses better. At times, I’ve wondered if Madison’s success is in any way similarly attributed to his switch from offensive line. I can’t really confirm or deny that, but this much I do know: It was thrilling to watch him develop a first step I previously didn’t know he had. Plus, he has an uncanny ability to get hands on passes and he looks absolutely comfortable in coverage, which could open up the zone blitz for Dave Steckel in 2011.
Bill C.: When Gabe Dearmond, Dave Matter, etc., were interviewing Mizzou assistants about their latest recruiting class last week, David Yost said something revealing about their general recruiting process. He was talking about how they try to find guys who will "practice well," then worry about positions later. He said it wasn’t clear Danario Alexander would be a receiver until well after he reached campus. He also insinuated that the staff had absolutely no idea what to do with Brad Madison at first. As RPT mentioned, Madison spent quite a while on the offensive line until it became clear that he was not going to be able to keep enough weight on to be a contributor there like his brother, Ryan, was. So he moved to defensive end and I basically wrote him off. This guy was supposed to be an offensive lineman, and now he’s supposed to be quick enough to make a difference at defensive end? No way.
Whoops. Madison was another all-or-nothing player in 2010 (42% of his tackles were for loss, more than the all-or-nothing Jacquies Smith’s 36%), but with a really nice blend of size, power and agility, he hinted at every-down potential. When Mizzou fans downplay the impact of Aldon Smith’s departure, it is mostly because of Madison’s contribution. If he lives up to his potential, Mizzou’s defensive line could be really, really strong.
Michael Sam (6’3, 245, So., Hitchcock, TX)
2010: 17.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 FF, 1 Blocked Kick
RPT: Michael Sam seemed to be the roughest of diamonds pulled from Texas, and though there’s still a ton of cutting and polishing to be done, we can certainly see the makings of a diamond in there. I’m kind of curious to see if Sam’s non-conference/conference production splits were a function of opportunity or opponent as his career moves forward. He’s developing a reputation as a bit of a disruptive force, and that could include disrupting the depth chart if Smith or Madison aren’t careful (not that Mizzou doesn’t rotate ends anyway...).
Bill C.: Hey, speaking of all-or-nothing, it’s Michael Sam, everybody! With players like Aldon Smith and Stryker Sulak, we have become accustomed to great all-around play from defensive ends (i.e. the capability to both attack and make plays downfield), and the next step in Michael Sam’s progression is to show a little capability to do something other than be occasionally disruptive. We list him third because Jacquies and Madison seem to be far ahead of Sam in that regard, but Sam was also only a redshirt freshman this past fall. He’s got a lot of growth ahead and a lot of time for said growth.
Marcus Malbrough (6’5, 240, Jr., Beaumont, TX)
2010: 2.5 tackles
2009: 5.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL/sacks, 1 FR
RPT: Opposing quarterbacks not included, is there a bigger victim in Mizzou’s explosion of defensive end depth than Marcus Malbrough? I submit that there is not. Malbrough appears to have done nothing wrong. He’s been a solid, serviceable contributor in limited playing time. His spot on the depth chart seems to have nothing to do with who he is, but rather who he is not.
Bill C.: Pretty much. Despite the presence of Aldon Smith, Brian Coulter and Jacquies Smith, Malbrough began to see quite a bit of playing time at the end of the 2009 season, and he had to think he was a solid breakthrough candidate in 2010. But then Brad Madison took a giant step forward and passed him on the depth chart. And then Michael Sam came out of nowhere. Now, with one underclassman ahead of him and two others pressing him soon enough, Malbrough very much needs a great spring to earn a spot in the rotation.
Brayden Burnett (6’3, 255, So., Southlake, TX)
2010: 4.5 tackles
RPT: Aren’t all of our Southlake Carroll recruits supposed to be Heisman finalists? As such, I would like to file Braydon Burnett’s freshman season as "extremely disappointing." You’ve got three more chances, sir.
Bill C.: And seriously, Mr. Burnett, I was very disappointed in your passing accuracy and ability to read defenses. What kind of quarterback are you, anyway?
Okay, fine, two real sentences of analysis: Burnett seemed to present solid all-around ability last spring, but he was unable to keep up with the upside of guys like Madison and Sam. Like Malbrough, he needs a good spring because there is a younger guy who will be seriously threatening his spot on the totem pole.
Kony Ealy (6’5, 250, RSFr., New Madrid, MO)
RPT: No pressure, New Aldon.
Bill C.: You know the staff likes a redshirting freshman when they tell the TV announcers about him while said TV guys are preparing for an upcoming game during the season. I counted no fewer than three different times when an announcer went out of his way to say something to the effect of "Missouri’s ends are great … and just wait until you see this guy Kony Ealy next year!"
INCOMING: Shane Ray (6’4, 220, Fr., Shawnee Mission, KS, ***)
RPT: In a recruiting class that failed to excite the masses (and, if I’m being honest, the fact that my first thoughts on the class are "Pinkel has earned benefit of the doubt" says quite a bit), Shane Ray is THE player I’m most excited about in this class. He’s explosive off the line of scrimmage, he uses his hands extremely well for a young end, he’s got a frame to grow into, and he’s a vicious tackler. But perhaps best of all, he enters the program with zero immediate expectation. If you haven’t noticed a theme here, defensive end is projected as a bit of a luxury for Mizzou. Ray is free to develop at his own pace.
Bill C.: Ray is the son of former Mizzou defender Wendell Ray, and I very much enjoyed Andy Hill’s "I was scared of that dude" anecdotes during recruiting interviews last week.
2011 vs 2010
When Aldon Smith went down with a foot injury in September, the defensive line’s overall play actually improved in his absence as players like Madison stepped up. Sure, he was only out for three games, but it was at least encouraging. It is dangerous to assume that a unit will be as good after losing a first-round talent like Agent Smith, but if the three primary returnees -- Jacquies Smith, Brad Madison and Michael Sam -- continue the explosive growth they showed this past season, then it is at least a possibility. And if Kony Ealy shows a good portion of the upside we’ve heard quite a bit about, or if a player like Marcus Malbrough or Brayden Burnett force the coaches to take notice and give them some playing time, then the depth of options here will be as strong as any in the new-look Big 12. Improvement from the defensive ends is not guaranteed, but neither is regression in Smith’s absence, which, in and of itself, is extremely encouraging.