It seems Missouri knew exactly what it had in Nick Bolton when the Tigers put him in to face Alabama on Oct. 13, 2018.
Bolton, a freshman at the time, entered the game at linebacker when Terez Hall was ejected in the first half for targeting. Though Hall was a senior and was entrenched at the linebacker position, the ejection served as the springboard for Bolton to show what Missouri’s future could look like on defense.
Bolton recorded a season-high eight tackles against the Crimson Tide, showcasing the potential he now brings every game as the Tigers’ starting weakside linebacker.
Only one of Missouri’s top playmakers has been a consistent presence through all eight games thus far.
It’s not quarterback Kelly Bryant, who has had his two lowest passing performances of the season in consecutive losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky
It’s not running back Larry Rountree III, who’s rushed for triple-digits three times this season, but also rushed for less than 60 yards in four of the other five games.
It’s not even potential first-round pick Albert Okwuegbunam, the tight end whose targets are head-scratchingly low, but has also caught at least three passes in just three games.
No, the player who’s been consistent across the board while also showing a penchant for explosive plays is Bolton. The only other player would could’ve shared that distinction with him, senior linebacker and defensive captain Cale Garrett, was lost for the season with a pectoral injury last month.
Missouri has put its trust in Bolton to carry the load, especially since Garrett went down, and he’s proven that he’s the right player for the job.
Bolton has produced less than nine tackles just twice on the year, and those two games were blowout wins over SEMO and Troy. In addition to the eye-popping 73 tackles he’s already made this season, Bolton also has 5.5 tackles for a loss, two interceptions, two quarterback hurries and four pass breakups.
And even outside of the box score, Bolton’s play on the field is just as impressive. Remember, his blitz on the quarterback almost directly led to Garrett’s pick-six against the Trojans.
He provides stability in the middle of the defense now that Garrett is out, and his leadership on defense — even as one of the youngest starters on that side of the ball — has proven necessary as the defense looks to maintain a sense of life in the midst of the current losing streak.
The defense hasn’t performed as well in recent weeks as it did during the five-game home stand, especially when considering that the Wildcats’ receiver-turned-quarterback Lynn Bowden tore up the unit to the tune of 204 rushing yards in the 29-7 win. Part of that blame should fall on the shoulders of the offense, who failed to produce much of anything in the first half, which then forced the Tigers’ defense to try to just keep the team afloat.
There are also still a number of bright spots on the defense that show why it was so dominant during the win streak. The secondary has been much improved this season as in years past. Safety Tyree Gillespie, who was ejected for targeting against the Commodores and missed the first half against Kentucky, began his day in the second half with two tackles and a forced fumble, showing his importance to the unit. Defense tackle Jordan Elliott, outside of a couple of offsides penalties against Vanderbilt that iced the game, has looked the part of an NFL draft pick.
But Bolton has proven himself to be the new leader of the defense. He’s the guy who has constantly been all over the field, making tackles, picking off passes and overall disrupting almost every play opposing offenses run.
The defense should be fine moving forward as long as the offense starts to carry its half of the load again, and a lot of that will come from Bolton’s play.