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Is Nick Bolton a ‘Mount Rushmore’ Mizzou defensive player of the last 20 years?

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Nick Bolton’s dominance the last two seasons is well documented. How does it stack up against some of the best Missouri defensive players of the last 20 years?

NCAA Football: Alabama at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Certain players have a unique ability to captivate an audience each and every time they step on the field. Markus Golden was one of those players. He played with so much passion that you could almost feel his intensity through the TV screen. The same was true of Sean Weatherspoon and Max Copeland, to name a couple recent Tigers.

You can go ahead and add Nick Bolton to that list now that he’s officially decided to call it a career at Missouri. It’s a shame we won’t see him suit up again in a Missouri uniform, but I think every Tigers fan is understanding of Bolton’s decision to forgo the bowl game to immediately begin training for the upcoming NFL Draft.

Bolton accomplished everything he hoped to do at Missouri. He became a critical component to Missouri’s defense as a sophomore. He took his game to another level as a junior. Without him, the Tigers don’t get to five wins in Drinkwitz’s first year at Missouri.

Bolton’s play forces us to have big picture conversations about his time at Mizzou. His peers aren’t his current teammates but rather the best Missouri players of the last 20 years. I started thinking about this over the summer, and watching his play this year did nothing to quell my curiosity.

I’m not sure there was anything Bolton could do this season to put him on the same level as Sean Weatherspoon. Spoon finished with at least 110 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss and three sacks in back-to-back-to-back seasons at Mizzou. That’s legendary. Spoon, for my money, is the best Missouri defensive player of the last 20 years if you account for longevity and peak performance.

Justin Smith is a tough case. He technically played in 2000, but the majority of his career was spent before this (completely arbitrary) cutoff. If you count him in the discussion, he certainly belongs in the same category as Spoon.

Weatherspoon and Smith are obvious picks. Markus Golden’s back-to-back seasons of at least 13 tackles-for-loss and at least eight sacks is deserving of having his name on the list.

After that, things open up a bit and Bolton starts to enter the discussion. Shane Ray, William Moore, EJ Gaines, Kentrell Brothers, Michael Sam, Sheldon Richardson and Aldon Smith are all worthy of mention along with Bolton for the final “Mount Rushmore” spot among Mizzou defensive players over the last 20 years.

Ray, Brothers, Sam and Smith each had one tremendous individual season. Moore was a legitimate game-changing presence on what was arguably the Tigers’ best team of the last 20 years. Gaines is easily Missouri’s best cornerback of the past two decades. Richardson’s numbers aren’t indicative of his dominance on the field.

Bolton’s sustained success is what differentiates himself from the rest of the field.

We’ve seen dominant seasons from Tigers defensive players. Aldon Smith finished with 19 tackles-for-loss and 11 sacks as a redshirt freshman. He followed it up with three sacks as a sophomore. That was the one concern about Bolton heading into 2020. Would he be able to follow up his dominant 2019 with another highly productive season? What happens when he’s the player opposing teams are highlighting in game plan meetings early in the week? Can he sustain his play without Jordan Elliott in front of him?

These were fair questions to ask. And, ultimately, none of it mattered. Bolton was as good as ever. He led the SEC in solo tackles, finished tied for 10th in tackles-for-loss and he was tied for the lead among SEC linebackers in passes broken up. His 127 solo tackles since the start of last season are tied for the most in college football with TCU linebacker Garret Wallow. The production is hard to argue with. The on-field impact is every bit as impressive.

Bolton played with an energy that was infectious. His teammates fed off of it. He was a tone-setting presence in the middle of the field and - pardon the cliche - he served as a coach on the field making sure the defense was lined up correctly. Remember what things looked like in the second half against Arkansas without him? Yeah, that’s another topic for another day.

It’s not easy to make your way onto Missouri’s Mount Rushmore of defensive players this century. The Tigers became known as ‘D-Line Zou’ for a reason. But Bolton’s play is more than worthy of recognition.

We’re going to miss watching him at Mizzou, but I think I speak for Tigers fans everywhere when I say I can’t wait to see which NFL team is lucky enough to draft the former Frisco, Texas native.