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The three keys to success for Mizzou’s defensive line this season

Mizzou has certainly lost their “DLineZou” mojo over the years, but there are reasons to believe the defensive line can have a successful season

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Mississippi v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

“DLineZou” just hasn’t been the same over the last couple of years, but that’s to be expected when a great defensive mind like Craig Kuligowski leaves the program. Although with the way Eli Drinkwitz has recruited this position, things are looking pretty promising for the near future, as Brandon Kiley pointed out in his latest column.

For this season, perhaps it’s too much to ask for the defensive line to legitimately bring back the “DLineZou” dominance, but it’s not too much to ask for this position to be a formidable unit and have a strong 2020 campaign. Here are the three keys to success for the defensive line this season.

Kobie Whiteside will need to emerge as the leader.

From Charles Harris to Marcell Frazier to Terry Beckner Jr. and Jordan Elliott, Missouri has always found that leader these last couple of seasons to carry this unit. With Elliott gone to the NFL, Mizzou will once again need to find that type of leader, but the obvious candidate here is Kobie Whiteside.

Whiteside had a breakout season in 2019 as a junior. Playing in all 12 games, he produced 16 solo tackles (28 total), and 7.5 tackles for loss (6.5 sacks).

Comparing that to Elliott’s sophomore season, he had 17 solo tackles (24 total), eight tackles for loss, and three sacks in 10 games played. Last season, Elliott contributed for 31 solo tackles (44 total), 8.5 tackles for loss, and 2.5 sacks in 12 games.

The best-case scenario for the defensive line this season is for Whiteside to have a Jordan Elliott type season, and Pro Football Focus believes Whiteside is capable of that.

Just one season ago, Mizzou ended up churning out one of the highest-graded interior defensive lineman in the FBS. His name was Jordan Elliott, and he ended up as one of the biggest steals in the 2020 NFL Draft, but the man who played alongside him, Kobie White side, might just have an Elliott-esque rise in him in 2020.

Whiteside produced a solid 78.8 pass-rush grade in 2019, 18th among Power 5 interior defensive lineman – and he did that while playing nearly 60% of his snaps at 0/1-technique. Looking at reps at that specific alignment only, no current Power 5 player posted a higher pass-rush grade (79.7) or pass-rush win rate (16%) in 2019.

His get-off is truly special for a 310-pound man, and when you pair that with his raw power, interior offensive lineman get beaten.

All eyes are on Whiteside entering his senior season. Can he live up to the hype? Mizzou will need him to.

Coaching Consistency

Mizzou defensive line coach Brick Haley is just one of three assistants (along with Ryan Walters and David Gibbs) that return on the coaching staff from last season. That’s important, and it’s not a coincidence that all three returners from the coaching staff are on the defensive side.

With Haley entering his fourth season on the coaching staff, there’s reason to believe that he can make a big impact – especially with the seniors on this defensive line with the chemistry they developed.

Prior to Haley’s first season, Missouri’s run defense was quite a disaster, ranking 112th in the country, allowing 531 rushes for 2,794 yards in 2016. Since then, Haley has stepped in and done a terrific job stabilizing the run defense.

In 2017, Missouri’s run defense ranked 58th in the country, allowing 521 rushes for 2,075 yards.

In 2018, the unit ranked 22nd in the country with 444 rushes for 1,644 yards.

Last season, they ended up 31st in the country with 423 rushes for 1,593 yards.

The run defense has always been there ever since Brick Haley took over, and him staying on the coaching staff for a fourth season is a huge plus for this defensive line. The returners are used to his coaching style and game-plan by now, and that could go a long way with a veteran core.

A significant increase in sack production

This one is obvious, but it’s too important not to ignore.

Last season, the Missouri Tigers ranked last in the SEC in total sacks with 19. That’s not great! Needless to say, this is an area that will need significant improvement.

Other than Kobie Whiteside, who led the team with 6.5 sacks last season — it’s rather difficult to predict who that next guy will be to step up. After Whiteside, Chris Turner was next in line with just two sacks. That’s not going to cut it.

Something has go to change with the pass rush, but the good news is that Brick Haley has recently had a good track record. In his two years at Texas, the Longhorns ranked tied for fifth in the country with 37 sacks in 2015, and seventh in the country with 41 sacks in 2016.

Even in Haley’s first season at Missouri, the Tigers finished fourth in the SEC with 31 sacks, respectably. But it has been downhill ever since.

Ideally, here’s hoping Missouri finds an increase in production with a veteran core — as six of the 14 defensive lineman are seniors who are capable of having big years.

Honestly, there are the pieces in place for this defensive line to have a successful impact this season. Everything is just going to have to come together.