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Mizzou Football Position Previews: The Defensive Line

Mizzou calls itself, “D-Line Zou,” but hasn’t done much to back it up recently. Which linemen are poised to right the ship this season?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 Missouri at Purdue Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome back to another season of Missouri football at Rock M Nation. Like every season, we’ll be running down the list of position groups, previewing each one with members of our football coverage team. You can find links to all pieces in the series here.

Mizzou’s vaunted “D-Line Zou” status has been in question for the past few years as the line has failed to produce a first-round NFL draft pick since Charles Harris finished his career in 2016. What’s been missing in the ensuing years?

Nate Edwards, Staff Football Analyst: Craig Kuligowski.

That’s it. Next question.

Ok, for the sake of not being a troll, I’ll continue.

In 2015, against an overmatched UConn offense, Missouri (accidentally) trotted out an all freshman line of Nate Howard, Terry Beckner Jr., Walter Brady, and Josh Moore who proceeded to sack the QB and force a punt. That was basically the end of D-Line Zou, because after that season, Kuligowski was not retained by Odom. Odom forced his pass-rushing beasts to play some ill-advised read-and-react scheme, and in the ensuing scramble to get back to the system they were recruited to, missed time to further improve the skill set they already had (also— transfers and dismissals did them no favors).

In addition, the recruits that Odom and Co. have received on the line have been JUCOs who have exhausted their eligibility or aren’t done developing yet. Nate Anderson, Walter Palmore, Rashad Brandon, and Malik Young were all tourniquets to stem the bleeding out of talent, and Chris Turner and Kobie Whiteside were 2-star recruits who needed a lot of time to develop. Recruiting has improved on the line in the past two years, but there hasn’t been enough time to see that yet. I’m not sure what we would have seen had Kuligowski been retained (and if he were, he’d probably been bumped to DC and not just a DL coach), but that ushered in a dark period where D-Line Zou lost its identity completely.

Tim Bussen, Staff Football Analyst: Not having a first-rounder is one thing; not having a future pro in three years is another. (I think Marcell Frazier got a sniff with the Browns, but he appears to be out of the league now without having recorded a stat.) The talent just hasn’t been there. The pass rush is the big question mark for this defense. If an end develops into anything close to Harris, it will do wonders for the pass defense.

Sammy Stava, Editor: In 2013, Missouri was fourth in the country with 41 sacks on the season. In 2014, the Tigers were ranked ninth in that department with 44 sacks. Since then there has been a noticeably huge drop-off in this area. In the last four seasons (from 2015-2018), Mizzou has only averaged 28.75 sacks. Obviously, the defensive line just hasn’t gotten to the quarterback as much lately.

A lot of that has to do with Craig Kuligowski’s departure having to learn a new scheme, and a lot of has been due to injuries, as Terry Beckner Jr. wasn’t healthy his whole college career. Can the Missouri get back to their “D-Line Zou” days? Sure, because there is still talent at this position, but it’s just a matter of putting it all together.

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Terry Beckner, Jr. was the rock that held everything together the past few years, but now he’s off to bigger things in the NFL. Who assumes the leadership role he held on the line, as well as the production he brought?

Nate Edwards: It has to be Jordan Elliott, right? Apples to apples with Beckner Jr.— they both have the high school prestige, athleticism, raw talent, and the likely employment via the NFL to be a seamless replacement. The production is there too... Beckner Jr. was nearly 10% of the team’s total havoc (TFLs, PDs, FFs) last year, but Elliott was at 7.6% and had only 0.5 fewer sacks than Beckner Jr. If Akial Byers steps up and becomes a vocal leader, that’s good with me too. The odds-on favorite, though, is Elliott.

Tim Bussen: Jordan Elliott is the obvious answer here, what with his breakout in last year’s second half. In terms of production, I’m hoping Kobie Whiteside can take the next step. He has raw power and began moving quicker and defeating blocks better by last season’s end. Leadership can be expressed in production, but also by energy and attitude. I would expect Chris Turner to embody this latter kind of leadership this year. He is an upperclassman now, is as experienced as any of the other ends, and has a tremendous motor.

Sammy Stava: The obvious answer here will be Jordan Elliott. He’s got the talent and experience for the leadership role, and Missouri is going to need to have that to replace Beckner Jr.

“There’s no reason why he can’t be one of the best interior defensive linemen in the country. We all have high expectations for him, for sure,” said Cale Garrett about Elliott at SEC Media Days. The defensive tackle had eight tackles for loss and three sacks last season, which ranked third on the team in those categories. He’ll be ready to step up to the challenge and provide a big impact to this defensive line this season.

Missouri v Florida Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Jordan Elliott is considered a popular pick to break out in 2019, but it feels like some of Mizzou’s best linemen have always come out of nowhere. Who’s your pick for the breakout star of the 2019 defensive line?

Nate Edwards: Elliott and Byers are mostly known quantities, as is Whiteside, so I’m ruling out the DTs as breakout candidates. Obviously, any of them could make “the leap,” but a bigger “out of nowhere” impact would come from the DEs. So who could that be? Does Chris Turner emulate Michael Sam and go from low-star project to “Sack Machine” defensive player of the year? Does Sci Martin provide an immediate shot in the arm? Does the sophomore class of Jeffcoat/Hansford put it together in year 2? Does the wily vet Franklin Agbasimere FINALLY see consistent playing time?

My vote for most likely breakout will be Martin. He’s a total unknown at this point and, while not familiar with the system, could provide a Markus Golden-esque shot in the arm as a big impact rotational player. He certainly has the pedigree to make an instant impact— highly regarded out of high school, signed with LSU, and played with the loaded East Mississippi “Last Chance U” Community College roster. Also, his 6.5 sacks would have lead the Tigers last year, while his 10.5 TFLs would have been second to Beckner Jr.

Tim Bussen: For me, it’s between Trajan Jeffcoat and Sci Martin, though Jeffcoat is more familiar, so let’s go with him. Coaches say he’s done the work this offseason, and it shows: he’s put on about 25 pounds since last fall. We’ve seen the speed; now let’s see how the added power affects his production. Jeffcoat’s emergence — or Martin’s, or anyone else’s... I’m not picky — would raise the defensive level as much as any other single factor.

Sammy Stava: Heading into his junior season, it looked like Tre’ Williams’ college playing career was in jeopardy after being arrested in December and serving a suspension from the school. He has been reinstated, though, and this is a situation where he can make the most of it. Missouri gets back a welcome addition to their defensive line that they were unsure of going into this season. Williams had 18 total tackles in 2017 and 20 last season, so expect that number to improve this season as he takes the next step.