What if I told you that a defense, once considered mediocre by pundits and fans alike, was transformed into an elite unit with the help of a stud linebacker? What if I also told you this star, the highest rated defensive player on his team by Pro Football Focus, was lost to injury in the team’s fifth game of the year, casting doubt on the rest of the season?
You'd think I was talking about Missouri (and Cale Garrett) right?
Perhaps you sniffed it out by my incredibly obvious lede, but that would not, in fact, be the case at Missouri. Because as great as Cale Garrett has been on this season — and please, do not take anything in this article to be an argument against his greatness — Pro Football Focus actually has sophomore Nick Bolton as the highest rated defensive player on the Missouri Tigers.
It may be a surprise to hear this (admittedly subjective) opinion, but it’s hard to ignore Bolton’s production. While Garrett does lead the team in tackles, interceptions and defensive touchdowns, Bolton is second on the team in tackles and pass break ups, tied for second in interceptions, and has a defensive touchdown of his own. It’s been hard to miss Bolton flying up and down the field, making the combination of the two seem like an unavoidable juggernaut for opposing offenses.
Bolton, since his arrival at Missouri, has been talked about in the sort of hushed tones that have always been reserved for, “those guys.” The most recent example I can think of is former defensive end standout Charles Harris. From day one, the Missouri coaching staff raved about his talent despite the fact that he was a little known recruit out of high school (also, did you know he played basketball?) Just a few years later, he was suiting up for the Miami Dolphins as a first round pick.
It may be unfair to put Bolton in the same sentence as a talent like Harris, at least for the time being. For as good as he’s been, Bolton is still only a sophomore. If you’re looking to be critical, you could also point out that a good chunk of his production came in his breakout game against West Virginia.
However, fair or not, it’s starting to look like Bolton will be called on to fill those shoes sooner rather than later. While it hasn’t been confirmed that Garrett will be out for the season, the surgery and recovery will likely require him to miss the rest of 2019, more than likely ending his time as a Missouri Tiger (barring any sort of medical redshirt). What is currently ranked as a Top 10 defense nationally by SP+ has lost its quarterback. No one seems more primed to step into the role than Garrett’s partner.
If you squint hard enough, there’s even similar historical precedent for this type of leadership transition at Missouri. In 2007, when Missouri lost senior “Pig” Brown halfway through its magical run, a host of young playmakers — including sophomore linebacker Sean Weatherspoon — stepped up to aid a defense that was suddenly short a man. Barry Odom, then with the program as a director of operations, got a first-hand look at how the coaching staff and team handled the loss, and he’s sure to bring it up while coaching his team through the next few months.
No matter how you spin it, the loss of Cale Garrett is a major hit to the Missouri Tigers. No amount of depth can cover for the loss of a senior captain, especially one who was playing his way into the All-American discussion. Nick Bolton, as fortune would have it, is already in a unique position to pick up right where his teammate left off. Should he continue to produce at the same level he has this year — or, one can only hope, take another step up — he’ll become even more of a star than we’ve seen in the first five games.