As the summer wraps up, I’m getting ready to head out the RMN door. So consider this a valedictory series of sorts. I’ve been in Columbia for just over 20 years and just over 20 football seasons. Time to list some of my favorite things from that time. So far we’ve looked at quarterbacks, Faurot Field crowds, tight ends, road performances, linebackers, running backs, and unsung heroes.
Now let’s talk about maybe the toughest “so hard to pick just five” position Missouri’s had, at least this side of wide receiver. I’ve actually been stalling in writing this one because I just didn’t know who to choose.
Missouri has been so blessed at defensive end through the years that if I were to make a top 10 list, I’d have to leave off someone extremely impactful.
Antwaun Bynum (2000-02) was maybe the best or second-best defender on two different Tiger teams and had four sacks in one game against Oklahoma State in 2001. He’d have been about 12th.
Xzavie Jackson (2003-06) had a key pick six early against Texas Tech in 2006, ended up with 13.5 tackles for loss that year, and is still bouncing around in football’s minor leagues. He’d have been about 11th.
Stryker Sulak (2005-08) had 10.5 sacks in 2008 and played a key role on two division champs. He’d have been 10th.
Jacquies Smith (2008-11), one of the most drastically under-appreciated Tigers I can remember, made 13.5 sacks in his first two years in the NFL despite being the best Mizzou defensive end for just one year at most. He’d have been about ninth.
Kony Ealy (2011-13) was Missouri’s best defender late in the Tigers’ 2013 run and would have been Super Bowl MVP had Carolina beaten Denver back in 2016. He’d have been about eighth.
Aldon Smith (2009-10) was the biggest personality and the best defender on Missouri’s 10-win 2010 squad. He was a top-10 pick and was damn near the NFL’s defensive rookie of the year in 2011 before his personal life started to get the best of him. He’d have been about seventh.
Shane Ray (2012-14) made more sacks in a single season than any Missouri Tiger ever — 14.5 in 2014. He scored one of Missouri’s most famous touchdowns. He’d have been about sixth.
Now that’s a high damn bar right there.
So who does make my top five?
5. Brian Smith (2003-06)
You could make the case that Smith was the most important Tiger. After three seasons as a one-trick pony of sorts — a good trick, mind you, as he had 24 sacks in those three seasons — he became the heart and soul of a revived defense in 2006. And unfortunately, sometimes you prove your worth with your absence.
Mizzou was locking up a 7-1 start in 2006 when Smith suffered a freak injury, breaking his hip while blocking on a David Overstreet interception return. The Tigers were at that point allowing just 14.6 points per game. He was on pace for 12 to 13 sacks overall. And without him, Mizzou lost four of its last five games, allowing 27.4 PPG in the process.
Despite playing just 3.5 seasons, he still lapped the field, finishing with the most sacks in Mizzou history (31.5), nine ahead of anyone else. How impressive is that number? if Aldon Smith had played all four seasons at his pace, he’d have recorded just 34. it will take a nearly full-career Aldon Smith performance to knock No. 39 from his perch.
4. Charles Harris (2014-16)
Sometimes the story seduces you. As good as Danario Alexander was in 2009, or as good as Henry Josey was in 2013, the fact that they had overcome significant knee injuries and persevered took their story from great to “my eyes still glisten every time I think about it.”
Harris didn’t overcome injury, but he became maybe the most memorable, apt Gary Pinkel recruit of Pinkel’s long tenure. Pinkel won plenty of tough, long recruiting battles — Dorial Green-Beckham’s, Sheldon Richardson’s, etc. — but he also unearthed too many diamonds in the rough to count. And Harris was so far in the rough that recruiting services hadn’t even heard of him when he signed with the Tigers on Signing Day 2013.
After playing a marginal role as a redshirt freshman, he exploded, recording 18.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks as a sophomore while also playing a major leadership role during the late-year protests. As Mizzou’s defense cratered in 2016, he still finished strong enough to become yet another former member of #DLineZou to get drafted in the first round.
From unrated to first rounder. He was a true difference-maker.
3. Michael Sam (2010-13)
Unlike Harris, Sam actually had a Rivals profile prior to his signing, but he was still an extremely unheralded recruit when he came to Mizzou. He had his moments early in his career — a game-clinching interception against Texas Tech in 2011, 17.5 total TFLs and 9.5 sacks three seasons — but came out of nowhere with an enormous 2013 season.
As Missouri was officially introducing itself to the SEC after a 2012 false start, Sam was sacking enough quarterbacks and making enough huge plays to earn the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
Because of everything that happened after his career, it’s hard to forget what a thrill he was on the field. Here’s a reminder:
After taking a huge leadership role as a player, of course, he then took on a leadership role as a person, publicly announcing his homosexuality despite being an active football player with pro hopes. What happened was tough — he was drafted by the Rams, then cut after a decent preseason, and while he has said that he still harbors pro hopes, he has been out of football since 2015. But wow, what a damn story.
2. Justin Smith (1998-00)
Seventeen years ago, when fall camp was beginning in 1998, we heard stories. The star of the previous signing class was Chillicothe offensive lineman Justin Bland, who chose Mizzou over Nebraska and all the usual suspects used to invading Missouri for talent. Bland was enormous and talented, and we assumed he was going to be the anchor for future Larry Smith lines. (Technically, he was, even if the lines weren’t as good as we assumed they would be.) We wondered if he was going to find a place in the starting lineup as a freshman.
When fall camp began, however, the stories we were hearing revolved around Bland as the victim. He was getting destroyed repeatedly by a true freshman defensive end with a generic name. The rumor was that the experience was making him question whether he really wanted to continue playing football. Turns out, the Jefferson City tight end Mizzou signed in the 1998 signing class was actually much better as a defensive end. His name was Justin Smith, and he would be playing a major role as a true freshman on a pretty experienced defense. A child born on the first day we heard about him that August is able to drive and is probably finishing up his or her sophomore or junior year in high school. Justin Smith’s longevity at such a ridiculously physical position is mind-blowing.
Smith was maybe the most purely dominant Missouri defender we’ll ever see, especially considering how Mizzou’s roster fell apart around him as his career unfolded.
He also had maybe the most physically dominant play we’ll ever see in 1998’s Insight.com Bowl, getting confused on a Statue-of-Liberty-esque play and simply shoving the QB (Marc Bulger) into the RB (Amos Zereoue).
And I mean, it’s hard to top the Godzilla nickname, too.
1. Markus Golden (2012-14)
If this were purely a list of Mizzou’s best defensive ends, Smith probably be number one. He had the dominance, the high draft slot, the maybe-hall-of-fame NFL career, etc. But this is a list of my favorites, and aside from maybe Josey and Alexander, I’m not sure a Mizzou player ever made my heart happier than when Golden made a play in black and gold.
Golden had to work to make his mark. A non-qualifier out of high school, Golden did time at Hutchinson CC, then arrived at Mizzou in 2012 as a man without a position. He made eight tackles at linebacker that year before moving to defensive end. Let’s say it was a pretty good move.
Golden made 33 TFLs and 16.5 sacks in 2013-14, crazy totals even before you remember how crowded Missouri’s depth chart was at the time. His absence in the 2014 Indiana game was the reason Mizzou lost (well, that, and appalling late-game clock management) but forget that negative memory — Golden is tops on my list because of his relentless positivity. No one ever appeared to simply enjoy being a Missouri Tiger more than Golden. His work with kids both in the St. Louis and Arizona (where he made 16.5 sacks in his first two seasons before a 2017 injury) has been inspiring.
Golden, by the way, made maybe the second-most amazing/fun play a Missouri defensive end has made (behind Smith’s).
That didn’t even count as a sack or TFL.
Goodness, do I like Markus Golden.