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Is Mizzou’s defensive line underrated?

The line is the least celebrated part of the Mizzou defense. Should we be giving them more credit?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Georgia at Missouri

As the 2023 season approaches, we’re asking our football staff to answer a series of questions facing the Mizzou Tigers. Read along to get their takes on who should start, who will shine and who will leave their mark on the season.

Legend says there was once a school in the middle of the United States. This school produced defensive linemen feared throughout the college football landscape. They roamed the backfield terrorizing young quarterbacks, wreaking havoc on beefy offensive linemen, obliterating poor running backs that stood in their wake.

The name of this hallowed institution? D-Line Zou.

It’s been a while since Mizzou was able to truly live up to the reputation that the early 2010’s defensive lines built, but that could change this year. After last year’s line flew under the radar of the celebrated secondary and linebackers, Blake Baker and Co. spent the offseason beefing up the pass-rushing depth with impact transfers. So it’s worth asking...

The secondary and linebackers get the hype, but it all starts up front. Is Mizzou’s defensive line underrated?

Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: It does all start up front, especially in the SEC. While the likes of Ty’Ron Hopper, Ennis Rakestraw, Jr., Joseph Charleston and plenty of others are great talents, they won’t be able to be overly effective if they are the first people to touch the running back on every play, or if the opposing quarterback has all day to sit in the pocket.

Even with Darius Robinson’s move to defensive end, I’m a big fan of the defensive tackles. Seniors Kristian Williams, Jayden Jernigan and Realus George, Jr. are maulers up front who can rotate in with no concern over a drop-off in production. That trio should provide a ferocious presence in the middle, but they’ll need help from the edge rushers.

Robinson’s move to DE is one of necessity. The loss of Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman to the NFL leaves a 13-sack void to be filled, and Arden Walker, Jr., a presumed candidate to fill that void, opted to transfer to Colorado in the spring. Thus, Robinson will slide over to test his mettle as a pass rusher, and while some see him as more of a natural tackle, I believe that he has the tools and grit to have a productive year on the edge as well.

As one of the leaders of this Tiger team, he’ll be in charge of an inexperienced group of ends. Johnny Walker, Jr. is a name who frequently pops up when the coaching staff talks about up-and-comers, and his three-tackle performance against Wake Forest showed what he is capable of with more playing time. Cardinal Ritter (St. Louis) product Joe Moore III similarly showed flashes of potential in ‘22 and will have a chance to take control of the starting spot alongside Robinson.

Outside of that, the group is largely full of unknowns. Transfers Austin Firestone (Northwestern), Nyles Gaddy (Jackson State) and Ben Straatman (Missouri S&T) will look to make an impact in their new home, while redshirt freshman DJ Wesolak has potential but is unproven. Depth at end is a major concern and will need to be settled by the time conference play rolls around.

This is an overshadowed group with plenty of potential, but a host of Tigers will have to become comfortable in larger roles for this to be a feared unit.

Aaron Dryden, Football Writer: That really remains to be seen. The group from last season was absolutely underrated. They had plenty of depth, experience and production at every spot. This year's group is different, though. I think their defensive tackles are going to be a bona fide strength. It’s the defensive ends, though, where I have some pause.

Much has been made of Darius Robinson’s move from his three-technique position out to end, and while it remains to be seen how frequently he will actually be outside, it’s a move that should be made with caution. Part of what makes Robinson so effective is his ability to win or draw A and B gaps. By taking him out of the interior, even for early downs, you’re putting him further away from the quarterback and in a sense, working away from what makes him the most effective. I get the rationale of why he would bump out, but it’s not without some element of risk.

At defensive end though, they have a few guys returning who have some intrigue. It’s not like they haven’t addressed the end spot by adding externally, either. They’ve brought in several P5 transfers as well as a SEC bounce back in Nyles Gaddy. If two or three of these guys can make a jump into the rotation, we may have something here. For now, though, this is a defensive end group that has a lot of question marks heading into the season.

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

Quentin Corpuel, Staff Writer: Anything being underrated, overrated or properly rated is completely dependent upon public perception. Max Kellerman explained this eloquently during a First Take segment in 2021. I felt like the snobby Harvard guy in Good Will Hunting writing that, but since I actually cited a source, I now feel less like the snobby Harvard guy. Phew.

That being said, I do think Mizzou’s defensive line is underrated. I think a lot of people believe that with Mizzou’s best edge rushers from 2022 gone (Isaiah McGuire, DJ Coleman, Tyrone Hopper and Trajan Jeffcoat), their defensive line will take a step back.

Once again, hold your horses. Transfers Nyles Gaddy (Jackson State) and Joe Moore III (Arizona State) are set to be instant-impact players off the edge. Darius Robinson, who played extremely well on the interior last season, is moving to the outside, and Johnny Walker Jr. figures to pitch in as well. And remember the cast of interior linemen who were awesome last season? They’re all back! Realus George, Jr., Kristian Williams and Jayden Jernigan figure to make up one of the best IDL trios in the SEC.

Again, I think a lot of people will look at the depth chart, see that the edge rushers have been replaced and will immediately think that the Tigers will be worse off up front. I’m here to tell those people that I don’t think they’ll be right.