Mizzou sack master Sam tries to avoid brightening spotlight

COLUMBIA, MO. — Michael Sam wasn’t talking, so his teammate Lucas Vincent gave it a shot.

“Kill,” Vincent said. “Kill. That’s all that goes through Michael Sam’s head when he is running after a quarterback.”

Perhaps Sam, who appeared briefly at the top level of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex on Monday afternoon, yet never walked down the staircase to speak with reporters, would agree. But it’s hard to tell when it comes to a young man whose nuances are many.

Teammates and coaches say the redshirt senior defensive end is both a compulsive reader and a constant entertainer, a nonstop singer whose range stretches from Motown to country tunes. Yet when it comes to the ultimate source of attention — the media — Sam tends to show an evasiveness that the quarterbacks he bullies would envy. Sam’s shyness isn’t stopping folks from talking about him, though.

“I could not be more pleased with his progress,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. “It helps the whole team and makes the defense play harder.”

“He’s just a very, very high-energy player,” Mizzou defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “And he always has been. I think it’s showing, coming to fruition right now.”

“He is kind of carrying the defense right now, you could say,” fellow defensive end Kony Ealy said.

Sam, who led the Tigers with 4 1/2 sacks last season, entered the third game of this season with zero. Now he has six in two games, which ties him with Aaron Donald (Pitt) and Chris Smith (Arkansas) for fourth most in the nation. He has won the Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week award on back-to-back Mondays, the first Tiger to receive two conference position awards in a season since safety Pig Brown locked down the Big 12 in 2007. With an Aaron Murray-led No. 7 Georgia on the slate for Saturday, Sam’s sack streak could not have come at a better time.

“Oh yeah,” Vincent said when asked if a three-sack-per-game pace could be maintained. “Michael Sam has an unbelievable motor. He won’t stop until he gets there.”

To call this a breakthrough would be inaccurate. Sam is not a new contributor. He’s been increasingly productive since he showed up as a freshman from Hitchcock, Texas.

It’s just that Sam has always been overshadowed by a more prominent lineman, whether it be San Francisco star Aldon Smith or Jets rookie Sheldon Richardson. This season Mizzou lacked a stand-alone star, instead offering a rotation of as many as nine defensive linemen who are all capable of making a game-changing play. Because Sam is on the field more than ever before, and because the Mizzou offense is scoring enough to let the Tigers’ defensive linemen pin their ears back, Sam has pushed ahead of the pack.

“Since he’s been here he has done good things,” Mizzou defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “He’s just never been in the spotlight before. Which is surprising, considering his personality.”

That personality has remained mostly a mystery to those not affiliated with the team.

For now, Sam seems perfectly content making his only statements on the field.

Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at frederickson.ben@gmail.com.