Much like a QB about to get train-wrecked by a blindside defensive end, we’re starting to feel the heat of the upcoming season. After a generally successful first week of college football — whatever the hell successful qualifies as right now — we seem pretty locked in on the beginning of the 2020 season, even if things get a little dodgy at some point in the middle.
As such, we’re wrapping up yet another week of positional previews by turning once again to our staff. They’ve tackled the backfield (metaphorically), scoped out the receivers (again, metaphorically) and struggled with the offensive line (that one was actually pretty literal). This week, our writers are focusing on the defensive line, a major question mark heading into the season. Will the line live up to the expectations and hype they’ve been selling throughout camp? Or will it be another down year for the once-vaunted D-Line Zou?
Much like the receivers, Drinkwitz made it a point to mention the defensive line as a position group he intended to fix with an emphasis on, “getting to the quarterback.” But the depth chart looks much the same as it did last year. Does the defense have the right guys to take on Drink’s stated mission?
Nate Edwards, Football Editor: I know Drinkwitz is using safe language by saying “get to the quarterback” rather than “sack the quarterback” in order to praise QB hurries, but based off of what we’ve seen from the established pieces at end, no, I don’t think he has the right guys to consistently affect the quarterback and passing game.
I know we’re all conditioned for someone to “make the leap” at some point from one year to the next, but a.) that doesn’t always happen, and b.) there tends to be incremental improvement in yearly production numbers before “the leap” happens. Here are the yearly sack totals from some of the best Mizzou pass rushers:
- Stryker Sulak: 3 -> 2 -> 6 -> 10.5
- Kony Ealy: 1 -> 3.5 -> 9
- Michael Sam: 1 -> 1.5 -> 4.5 -> 11.5
- Shane Ray: 0 -> 4.5 -> 14.5
- Markus Golden: 0 -> 6.5 -> 10
- Charles Harris: 2 -> 7 -> 9
Now, we don’t know that the leap happens until the leap happens, but let’s look at Tre Williams and Chris Turner’s yearly sack totals:
- Tre Williams: 3 -> 2.5 -> 1
- Chris Turner: 0.5 -> 2 -> 2
Trusting that a huge leap in improvement happens is the same as trusting that a true freshman makes an immediate impact: can it happen? Yeah, it can happen. Should we bank on it happening? Absolutely not. And the defensive end roster is loaded with hopes and freshmen so based off of realistic expectations, no, the Tiger ends won’t be sacking the quarterback with the regularity that we, or Drinkwitz, would like.
Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: At defensive end? No. We can be open & honest about that. It’s arguably (maybe objectively?) the weakest position on the team. There is no standout at the position and there aren’t really any players you can point to for 2020 that have a realistic case to be a breakout candidate. So, no, I don’t think it’s likely they have the right guys at that position to take on Drink’s stated mission.
Defensive tackle is a different question entirely. It’s probably the best and deepest position on the roster. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point this season we see one of the defensive tackles (likely Akial Byers) kick outside to help with the pass rush. It might be their only real opportunity to create havoc on the quarterback. You have the talent along the defensive line. That talent just happens to be consolidated on the interior and the Tigers need someone to emerge on the edge.
Aaron Dryden, Staff Football Writer: Probably not. Which, I actually think is okay. There wasn’t much he could do with this position group as far as adding talent, especially when you consider the amount of seniors on scholarship at this position. I think that any improvement was going to be by internal improvements only. At this point you can hope for those internal improvements, but there isn’t much substance that would lead you to be excited.
Even in their down years, it always feels like Mizzou has at least one lineman that flashes some sort of pro potential. Who do you see becoming that focal point of the line and why?
Nate Edwards: Kobie Whiteside will be the focal point of the line, no question. He has become a a leader off the field and the unquestioned leader on it, not just for the line but for the defense as a whole. When the players have talked about team leadership during the MIZ-ZOOM meetings, regardless of what side of the ball they play on, they always cite Whiteside and his quiet “lead-by-example” approach that the rest of the defense follows. He had an incredible year last year and will be the target for opposing offensive lines to game plan for. His height might be a problem — 6’1” doesn’t typically scream “NFL lock” at the tackle position — but if he can duplicate his 2019 season with all the attention on him in 2020, it might have a few NFL scouts looking his way.
Brandon Kiley: It’s interesting, because the answer should be Kobie Whiteside given his production. But Whiteside is listed at just 6-foot-1, and that’s not exactly the prototype for an NFL defensive tackle. There were only 18 defensive linemen in the NFL last year that are listed at 6’1” or shorter and weighed at least 300 pounds. Five of those 18 went undrafted. None were top 50 picks. Only one went before the third round.
The NFL likes its defensive tackles to look and play a certain way. I think Whiteside has the skills to play in the league. The question is whether or not the league will value those skills at his size. I think the answer will still be yes. But it’s not as much of a guarantee as it should be.
Aaron Dryden: Kobie Whiteside has the production, but I don’t know how his size projects to the next level. However, with so many teams drafting off potential and traits, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a guy like Akial Byers get a shot in camp if he were to get some quality film on tape this season. He has a bigger frame, and has some experience not only playing inside, but also playing outside a bit. He could fit the description of a 3-4 defensive end.
Drinkwitz has made the defensive line a major part of the 2021 recruiting class, but he was able to bring some promising names in 2020 as well. Do any of the newcomers strike you as potential contributors early on?
Nate Edwards: The freshmen defensive linemen are Z’Core Brooks after his redshirt year, Johnny Walker as a high school 3-4 outside linebacker who’s now at defensive end, and Montra Edwards in the middle. I think Edwards has the most talent of those three, but is facing a backlog of experienced upperclassmen that will be seeing the field way too much to have Edwards make a consistent impact this year. Brooks is an overlooked asset in a room full of guys that need to step up; a year in the program learning the Walters system, getting 20 pounds of beef added to his frame, plus an open audition for guys to move up under new coaching eyes makes me feel hopeful that he can contribute positively this year.
Brandon Kiley: I think the correct answer is no. The Tigers are just so deep at defensive tackle that it’s going to be hard for any newcomer to find their way into that rotation. Defensive end is the spot where the playing time is available, but there are no obvious candidates to step in to fill the talent vacuum. Johnny Walker, Jr and Ben Key are really the only options and I just don’t know if we should expect much early on from either player.
The reinforcements for the defensive line are coming, but those reinforcements are coming as part of the 2021 class, not this year.
Aaron Dryden: Yeah, I don’t really see very many younger guys contributing this year. Drink has said that no one is redshirting, so it wouldn’t surprise me if in some of these games that may potentially get ugly, that we see younger guys in mop up duties. Other than that, I don’t foresee a way for any underclassmen to carve out a role. I like some of the younger guys who are still on the roster, but they’re fighting a big uphill battle to get playing time.