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Mizzou has some exciting talent at linebacker, but will they be able to fill Nick Bolton’s shoes?

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Mizzou will have big shoes to fill in Nick Bolton’s absence. Who will step up into the role he left behind?

NCAA Football: Rice at Army Danny Wild-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, fall camp is finally here for Mizzou Football. To prepare you for the coming season, we’ll be previewing each position group with a roundtable Q&A every Monday.

Mizzou can try hard, but there will be no replacing Nick Bolton in 2021. Out of all the great things Bolton brought, what will be the hardest for the Tigers to replace?

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Nate Edwards, Football Editor: Would it be weird if I cited Bolton’s pass defense skills? Yes, he was an excellent student of the game and a hard-hitting havoc machine, but he also broke up 12 passes and snagged 2 interceptions in his two years as a starter. The only other returning linebacker from last year’s roster with any pass defense stats is Devin Nicholson, with 1 pass broken up and 1 interception (in the South Carolina game where Luke Doty essentially threw it right to him). Blaze Alldredge had 4 passes broken up and 1 interception in his three years at Rice so hopefully he can provide that quiet, second-element that Bolton brought to the defense to help bolster the secondary.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: Nate makes an important point about Bolton’s pass defending — it was one of the quietly great parts of his game! And while it would be great for another LB to provide that, I have to think one of the more important parts of Bolton’s presence was the way he set the tone of a game.

Think back to the Arkansas game last season when Bolton got run out for a terrible targeting call... and yet showed up and made his physicality count on the sidelines. He made sure his loss didn’t change the overall tone of the game. He did that throughout his career both through his play on the field and his leadership off of it. It may seem trite to say that a necessary replacement will both a star and a leader... but those things can’t be mutually assumed.

Kortay Vincent, Football Beat Writer: Leadership is one of those things you can’t quantify. Of course, Bolton had all the stats you’d want from your star linebacker, but he was also the unquestioned leader of last year’s team. Now, someone needs to step up and fill that void in Bolton’s absence.

Eli Drinkwitz helped the linebacker room immensely by bringing in coveted Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge. Where does Alldredge slot in, and what can we reasonably expect from him in 2021?

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Nate Edwards: I’ve previously said it many times, and I’ll say it again: you don’t bring in graduate transfers to just have them sit on the bench. Alldredge was an All-Conference USA performer at Rice and will be expected to contribute, and start, immediately. His best year with the Owls saw him generate a ton of havoc, racking up 21.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks along with 24 run stuffs; that’s better than any season Nick Bolton ever had and will be the hopeful performance he can replicate. At a bare minimum he needs to be an effective, stop-gap, replacement-level linebacker to absorb snaps while the younger guys develop around him.

Josh Matejka: Well, he’s going to be a starter no matter which way you slice it... and if he’s not, you can officially start worrying about (a) his health or (b) the health of the defense. Alldredge’s numbers at Rice speak for themselves, and it seems like the coaches hope he can recreate some of Bolton’s disruptive tendencies in the opposing backfields. I don’t know that I’d necessarily expect early NFL pick levels of production from Alldredge, but he’s certainly performed well against higher-rated opponents in the past. It’s probably fair to expect him to be an above-average SEC linebacker who mostly excels at eating snaps and providing valuable leadership experience to a young defense.

Kortay Vincent: Alldredge was the man on the Rice defense for the last two years. He’s been first-team Conference USA the last two years and was a team leader in tackles, TFL, and sacks. He won’t replace the departure of Bolton, but he will bring mountains of experience and good talent. I expect that he will add another element to the Tiger pass rush that was subpar at times last year. In pass coverage, he won’t have as much of an impact, but he should live in the opponent’s backfield.

The depth at linebacker is both thin and young, especially after the recent departure of Cam Wilkins to the transfer portal. Which players need to step up for Mizzou to have a strong set of LBs in 2021?

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Nate Edwards: Devin Nicholson is the obvious choice because he’ll be one of the starting linebackers (barring an injury or a total meltdown in quality). It would be nice for Chad Bailey to finally realize his 4-star potential, especially since he and Devin are the “most experienced” guys in the room as sophomores. My preference, however, would be to see the younger guys usurp the vets and start logging playing time now in preparation for the “surge” in age/talent/experience that we’re anticipating in 2023 that should/could lead to a big, breakthrough season. Whether that’s young Rock Bridge-product Will Norris or Dameon Wilson - who’s already earning early rave reviews - I always prefer younger talent seeing the field over older guys who’ve been locked into the special teams unit.

Josh Matejka: I’m still hopeful Chad Bailey can be the guy we hoped he was years ago, but everyone is watching him these days. Instead, I’m hoping at least one or two of the young guys can step up and provide Steve Wilks with a dependable two-deep... or at least one that won’t get burned consistently. I like Dameon Wilson’s potential as a tackling machine and run defender a la an early version of Kentrell Brothers. If he (or anyone! Will Rogers, Zach Lovett, I’m not picky!) can stand alongside Bailey or Jamie Pettway as a dependable back up, it’ll be enough.

Kortay Vincent: One player I think will step up this year is Chad Bailey. He was Bolton’s roommate last year, and despite not having all the on-field experience, he seems eager to step into a contributing role. In a spring practice press conference, Bailey said, “I want all the defensive players to know they can trust in me like they trusted Nick Bolton last year,” and quickly followed it up with a solid performance in the spring game. Keep a lookout for the former 4-star this year as the Tigers look to find depth at the linebacker spot.