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‘Best hands on the defense’? Bolton’s breakout creates competition for Missouri

Nick Bolton leads the Tigers in interceptions after an impressive performance against West Virginia. Will the rest of the defense come for his throne?

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Bolton believes he’s got the best hands on Missouri’s defense, and he said as much after the win over West Virginia on Saturday.

He does have a claim to the throne, too, as the sophomore weakside linebacker now leads the team with two interceptions through the first two games of the season, which includes the pick-six against the Mountaineers that gave the Tigers their largest lead of the day.

As the backup for former linebacker Terez Hall in 2018, Bolton saw time in all 13 games and actually filled in for most of the last three quarters against Alabama when Hall was ejected for targeting. Bolton ended up finishing the year 15th on the team in total tackles, which — as a true freshman backing up a senior captain — is quite the accomplishment.

Bolton’s season impressed his coaches enough that he was quickly named a starting linebacker during spring ball. After what he displayed Saturday in just the second start of his career, Bolton looks to be entrenched at the position for good.

“(Bolton is) really mature as a competitor, and he’s mature in his habits in how he gets prepared,” Head Coach Barry Odom said. “... He understands how important his role is in that spot and the defensive structure on how we play. I think he’s going to keep coming, (and) I think he’s going to have a chance to be a really, really good linebacker.”

In his college career, Bolton never before produced at the level he did against West Virginia. In addition to his two interceptions, Bolton tied the team lead with seven total tackles, including three solos and two tackles for a loss.

According to the College Football Reference Play Index, no other Missouri player since at least the turn of the century has recorded two TFLs and two picks — with one returned for a touchdown — in a single game.

“I was just happy for him. We’ve seen it in practice a bunch, and for him to come out there and put it on display when it matters most, it was fun to watch,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “The kid busts his tail every day. He’s smart, he’s savvy, he makes plays, and Saturday was no different.”

West Virginia v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

His performance not only earned him SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors, but also bragging rights on the defense, at least until this Saturday’s game against Southeast Missouri.

Bolton doesn’t just lead the Tigers with his two interceptions; he actually has more picks than the rest of the team combined.

While the secondary is usually known as the group with the ballhawks, it’s the linebacker unit that’s produced the most turnovers. This presents a challenge to the corners and safeties on the squad, who — while obviously happy for him — now have added motivation to not let him lead the pack for long.

“It was a lot of hype. I’m proud of my little brother, Nick,” cornerback Adam Sparks said. “We was like ‘Bro, you’re a linebacker and got two picks before us.’ So we’ve got to step it up.”

Bolton credits Hall for helping him be prepared to step into the role he has now.

Not only did Hall’s ejection lead to Bolton getting experience against one of the top teams in the nation, but he was also a mentor who took Bolton under his wing. Knowing he would eventually be taking Hall’s spot beside middle linebacker Cale Garrett, Bolton appreciated the advice his “big brother” gave him as he adjusted to the college game.

“If you watched Terez play, he taught me how to fill gaps, how to cover, where your eyes are supposed to be, how to get a feel for things that are going to happen on the football field,” Bolton said. “He also helped me on film, evaluating... Just learning from him and Cale, both of them helped me a lot last year.

“... (Terez) was just like a big brother figure.”

Bolton is already an early favorite to replace Garrett at middle linebacker next season, but he said he’s not thinking about that just yet. With Missouri still looking to turn 2019 into a special season, Bolton’s focus is only on preparing for his next opponent.

But about him having the best hands on the defense?

“You know what, if he can keep making interceptions, I’ll go ahead and back him up with that,” linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves said.