Nick Bolton was “the guy” for this Missouri defense the past two seasons. Bolton led this team in tackles and tackles each of the past two years, made all of the calls for the defense, was one of the vocal leaders on the team, and was just an overall menace on the field. Offenses had to scheme around him, and many SEC quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers felt all 240 lbs. of him when he hit them.
Of course, Bolton was drafted in the second round by the home-state Kansas City Chiefs in April, which is bittersweet. We no longer get to watch him take down opposing teams at Faurot Field, but just a couple hours away he will be doing the same thing to the likes of Derek Carr and Justin Herbert at Arrowhead.
So, this linebacker group is now is in search of a new veteran leader. The secondary has junior safety Martez Manuel, and the defensive line has senior Kobe Whiteside to stand behind. Who will be that guy for the linebackers?
Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge is another worthy candidate for the role, but I would like to focus on returning junior Devin Nicholson. The Detroit product recorded 24 tackles in his freshman season before exploding for 69 in 2020, good for second on the team. On top of that, he led the team with 2 forced fumbles during the shortened season.
Nicholson has been in the midst waiting for his turn behind Bolton, and now he has his shot.
A 3-star recruit out of Class Technical High School in Detroit, Nicholson was largely unheralded, having received mainly offers from MAC schools. Still, with his 6’2”, 220 lb. frame, Nicholson has been able to develop into a quality SEC linebacker that has all the tools to make it to the next level.
Where he needs to improve is in pass defense. Bolton was quietly solid in dropping back in coverage, a skill that is hard to find in many linebackers. In order to make a claim to the NFL, Nicholson will need to take some notes from Bolton and improve in coverage, because he will be relied upon more to do so.
Still, Bolton leaves very large shoes to fill, as do all of those that came before him. Sean Weatherspoon, James Kinney, Kentrell Brothers, Andrew Wilson, and plenty of others have left impressive legacies at Mizzou. Nicholson and Alldredge now have the chance to do the same.
Nicholson is the only true returning starter at linebacker, so he will be looked to as a leader, especially with so much inexperience behind him and Alldredge. It remains to be seen if one of the two emerges as the true leader or if the veterans share responsibility, but regardless, I am excited to watch this hard-nosed linebacker duo go to work this season.