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Nate Howard and Tre Williams might be the Missouri’s most important players in 2017

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Mizzou could have strong quality at defensive end in 2017-18. Quantity, not so much.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Missouri
Marcell Frazier (16) and Nate Howard (88)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Mizzou had five 10-win (or more) seasons under Gary Pinkel: 2007-08, 2010, and 2013-14. The first two were defined by Chase Daniel and a prolific offense, but the last three all featured excellent defenses that were driven by excellent defensive line play.

Despite Barry Odom’s defensive credentials, his first year as head coach saw dramatic regression on that side of the ball, and it started up front. Even with the presence of first-round draft pick Charles Harris, #DLineZou was a bit of a pushover. A change in coaching style and tactics had a role to play in that, sure, and a midseason injury to tackle Terry Beckner Jr. certainly didn’t help. But throughout the season, there was reason to wonder about the pure talent. Did Mizzou have it like it did in years prior?

I talked about the current and future prospects the defensive tackle position for the Tigers a few days ago. Now let’s shift our focus to defensive end.

Here’s a look at Mizzou’s scholarship ends and key walk-ons moving forward. As with the defensive tackles, former four-star recruits are in bold.

Mizzou defensive ends

A few observations:

Marcell’s star turn

DSU-Frazier
Marcell Frazier
Derrick Forsythe (Rock M Nation)

When Odom made a point of shifting toward more aggressive tactics up front in the middle of 2016, it didn’t help the run defense any. By that point, Beckner was gone, and the Tigers continued to struggle in this regard.

From an attacking standpoint, however, there was a clear difference in production. And that shift began with Marcell Frazier. In the first seven games of the season, Frazier had pulled a disappearing act. He had just five solo tackles, 12 assists, and a lone tackle for loss. That’s dreadful for a guy who had managed 6 TFLs in backup play a year earlier.

Over the last three games in particular, though, Frazier suddenly turned into Shane Ray. He had 7.5 TFLs and 6.5 sacks, and he was the driving force for a Missouri defense that held Vanderbilt and Arkansas to a combined 41 points (and, yes, got torched by Tennessee in between).

Frazier showed in that final quarter of the season that his upside is awfully high. Does that mean we’ll see more of it this fall? Granted, Mizzou still has to force opponents to pass to utilize his pass rushing ability, but if Frazier turns last year’s late-season burst into a 10- or 15-sack season, that makes Missouri’s passing downs defense pretty scary in and of itself.

The four-star needs to play like a four-star

Of course, Frazier is a senior. He’s gone after 2017, and the emergence of a young end opposite Frazier is vital to Mizzou’s prospects moving forward. That could be Nate Howard, who was all over the field against Vanderbilt after sitting out most of the season. The junior-to-be has drawn praise in practice and seems to have a pretty high ceiling. But he’s also already a junior.

The best possible thing for the future of Missouri’s defensive line would be four-star redshirt freshman Tre Williams looking the part as quickly as possible.

The depth of DLineZou during its heyday meant that future stars like Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Shane Ray, and Charles Harris played only marginal roles as redshirt freshmen; Aldon Smith posted huge numbers in 2009, but he was just about the only one.

Williams, on the other hand, has all the playing time in the world ahead of him if he is able to play like a four-star guy in 2017. We heard rumbles of strong play in spring ball, but that’s spring ball. Show it in the fall, and suddenly you’re looking at a very high-ceiling line in 2018 and beyond.

Nate Howard
Nate Howard
Derrick Forsythe (Rock M Nation)

Unlike the tackle position, Mizzou doesn’t really have big numbers at end. Whereas at least 10 DTs are scheduled to be around in 2018, there are only five such ends. If Howard and Williams don’t play particularly well, or if newcomers Nate Anderson and Chris Turner don’t click, the end position will be a massive question mark heading into next spring.

Ronnie Perkins might be the most important member of the Tiger 10

According to the 247Sports Composite, the top two players in the state this year are defensive tackle Michael Thompson and receiver Kamryn Babb. If Mizzou does well this fall, the Tigers appear to be in decent shape with both prospects. The same goes for other four-stars like linebacker Ayodele Adeoye and defensive tackle Trevor Trout.

To say the least, Mizzou would take happily take all of them. But in terms of need and future depth, you could make the case that the No. 3 player in the state, Lutheran North’s Ronnie Perkins, would be the biggest get of the bunch for Mizzou. Perkins is the brother of potential Mizzou starting safety Ronnell Perkins, which can’t hurt, though Oklahoma and others are also in good shape in Perkins’ recruitment.

There are other interesting ends on the recruiting hot list if Perkins doesn’t end up in Columbia — for starters, Blue Springs’ Daniel Parker, the No. 8 player in the state. But Perkins’ stock has risen quickly, and his offer list is ridiculous. Signing Perkins and Parker would be very reassuring because even Howard, Williams, Anderson, and Turner all flash potential this fall, and even if raw sophomore Franklin Agbasimere shows promise at his new position when healthy, Mizzou just doesn’t have high quantity here. Depth means options and the ability to absorb injuries.