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Rock M Roundtable: It’s the Nick Bolton show in Missouri’s linebacker corps

The story of this season is Nick Bolton, the undisputed QB of the Mizzou defense. But who else will step up to help him out?

Troy v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

One week from today, we’ll be experiencing what we all know and love as “Black and Gold Friday” — or at least, we would be experiencing it if we were all on Mizzou’s campus.

That’s right, we’re only 8 days out from the opening kickoff of Mizzou’s very strange 2020 season against Alabama, and things are... well, they’re... I don’t know, pretty weird? We know a host of Tigers will be down and out because of a mini-COVID outbreak, and I’m still not sure how many fans are going to be let in (Editor’s note: whatever 25% capacity is, according to a meeting I attended Thurs PM). But one thing we do know is that a ball will be kicked and thrown, points will be scored, and the W-L record will be adjusted. So as we barrel forward, let’s move on with our position recaps.

Our writers have covered most of the positions on the Mizzou roster — the QBs battling for the starting spot; the fearsome RB committee; the WRs itching for a breakout; the TEs looking to take over for Albert O; the OL looking to redeem itself; and the DL out to restore the good #DLineZou name. As we round into game week next week, we still have two more groups to cover.

Today, we’re focusing on one position group fans haven’t been too worried about this offseason, mostly because of the presence of one All-American.

There’s no way to talk about Mizzou’s linebackers without mentioning Nick Bolton. The All-American exploded into national prominence in 2019, and has all the makings of an NFL player as soon as next year. Will he anchor the defense like some of the great LBs (Weatherspoon, Brothers, Garrett) before him?

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: There’s certainly no reason to think he can’t and won’t. Bolton has all the same makings of the linebacking greats of recent Tiger history — athletic, cerebral, calculating — and he’s already proven he can produce at the biggest level. Specifically, he reminds me a lot of Kentrell Brothers (my personal favorite Mizzou LB), who always brought to mind the word, “magnet,” as he was always sniffing out the ball. Bolton has that same intangible skill. He can dissect plays as they happen and jump them before they develop.

The thing that really puts him a cut above, though? He’s an advanced playmaker in the passing game as well. Bolton had 10 passes defended in 2019, which was tied for the team lead with Joshuah Bledsoe. That number eclipses Brothers and Garretts’ career numbers, while bringing to mind the numbers Witherspoon put up in his sophomore and junior seasons. With the ability to take away the middle of the field and sniff out the run, Bolton is primed for another All-American campaign.

Jacob Giancola, Lead Football Beat Writer: Stop whatever you’re doing. Go to your bank. Sell your house and put it all on Nick Bolton leading this team in tackles. Sure, the man is capable of putting up numbers, and we’ve seen first-hand how drastically he can make an impact with his playmaking abilities, but you should hear the way this man’s teammates talk about him when he’s not around. By how some of the players talk about him, he’s the first man in and the last man out of practice. I believe Bolton’s work ethic is what makes him such an outstanding player.

Sammy Stava, Staff Writer: Nick Bolton should be in for another huge season, and the defense will need him to be. And with the way he stepped up last year in replacement of Cale Garrett, I’d fully expect him to emerge as that type of leader, as if he wasn’t already. With Penn State’s Micah Parsons opting out, we could potentially be talking about Nick Bolton as one of the best linebackers in the country. In such a strange season like this one, with no spring ball and a delayed fall camp, it may be tough for him to live up to the hype and expectations. Still, I believe he’s fully capable of anchoring this defense the way Weatherspoon, Brothers, and Garrett did. He’s got the talent and leadership qualities to do so.

While several players filled in admirably for Cale Garrett after the devastating end to his senior campaign, the Tigers never found a way to recreate the Garrett-Bolton pairing. Is anyone primed to step into the spotlight like Bolton did in 2019?

SEMO v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Josh Matejka: I had a whole thing written out about Chad Bailey, whose career has been my personal hobby horse over the past few years— but then he went and got hurt. Do I still think he could put up a good season once he returns from injury? Sure! But the chances are definitely lower now, and I’d like to dedicate some digital ink elsewhere.

Out of all the other guys gunning for that second starting spot, I think the most likely to “break out” is sophomore Devin Nicholson — at least, if you think of breaking out in the same terms of what Bolton did last year. Aubrey Miller and Jamal Brooks are solid players, of course. But only Nicholson has that combination of size, speed, and most importantly, youth, to really put his name on the map for the coming years. The fact that he got a lot of run in his true freshman season gives him the upper hand to be the next household name in Tiger country.

Jacob Giancola: My initial reaction to this would be to say Devin Nicholson should get the starting job alongside Bolton but the more I think about it, the less sure I become. I think on paper, Nicholson will give the Tiger defense the best chance to make big plays, but if Mizzou is good at doing anything historically, it’s completely dropping the ball.

I would like to think Nicholson and Bolton get the game one, first-drive against the Crimson Tide. Whether or not that combination holds up throughout the season, or even the first game for that matter, will definitely depend upon results. There is still talent and experience in both Aubrey Miller and Jamal Brooks, not to mention an up and coming Cameron Wilkins.

Sammy Stava: I think Cameron Wilkins is going to step up and have a big year entering his junior season. As a sophomore last year, Wilkins played in eight games and had 33 total tackles, with an interception and a fumble recovery. He filled in admirably playing in some key spots last season. If he can get some consistent playing time this season, I think it’s fair to assume his production on the field will increase, and we’ll see him take that next step.

The depth chart at linebacker is littered with underclassmen. Can any of the young guns step into a more prominent role and set themselves up to be major contributors moving forward?

Tennessee v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Josh Matejka: Nicholson would also be a perfect fit here as he’s one of the youngest players on the depth chart in this group. Redshirt sophomore Gerald Nathan, Jr. could also be considered given the time he’s spent in the program while still maintaining underclassman status. There’s Jamie Pettway, the redshirt freshman, or Will Norris, the true freshman, who could also be candidates...

Are you getting a theme here? There are quite a few names you could pick from, but none of them have offered any on-field evidence. That’s not to say they won’t — I actually think Nathan could be primed for a solid year — but this is what you get with youth. There are a lot of options, and generally only one stand out, especially in a group with established veterans.

Jacob Giancola: Bank on Devin Nicholson to step in to fill that role. Nicholson is a large and athletic type of player who does really well in pass coverage. I like to think that Nicholson will act as the Robin to Bolton’s Batman helming this year’s Tiger defense. There are a copious amount of underclassmen at the linebacker position as well, but it’s too early to predict any of them contributing anything major, especially since there’s been zero time to see them in action. Keep an eye out on guys like Cameron Wilkins; that kid could be a serious dark horse this year.

Sammy Stava: To me, Devin Nicholson is an underclassman that can be a major contributor moving forward. Nicholson started the last five games last season and made the most of it, contributing for 24 total tackles and a forced fumble. Just getting that type of playing time experience as a freshman last season can be pretty valuable, so I’d expect Nicholson to have himself a solid sophomore campaign.