The five defensive players who were most critical to Mizzou’s success

Defensive end Michael Sam’s breakout season got off to a slow start. So
slow, in fact, you might not have noticed him as he went without a sack
in each of the Tigers’ first three games.
 
Then came Arkansas
State. Sam, who entered his senior season with 9 1/2 sacks in three
years, broke out with three sacks against the Red Wolves and took off
from there. By the time the regular season was over, Sam had produced
one of the best seasons of any defensive player in the country.
 
‘Tis
the season for college football awards, and the honors have been
rolling in for Sam and other Mizzou players. Clearly, Sam headlines the
defensive players who were most responsible for the Tigers’ 11-2, SEC
East championship season and Cotton Bowl berth.
 
Yesterday we
looked at the five most valuable players for Mizzou on offense. Today we
present five defensive players who stepped up and made the biggest
difference for the Tigers this fall.
 
MICHAEL SAM
 
Sam’s
performance against Arkansas State kicked off a four-game stretch in
which he racked up nine of his team-high 10 1/2 sacks. He had three
sacks against Arkansas State, three at Vanderbilt the next week and then
three more two weeks later against Florida.
 
The fifth-year
senior finished with 45 tackles (a team-high 18 for loss), nine
quarterback hurries, two pass break-ups, one forced fumble and one
fumble recovery. His sack and tackle for loss totals were the best marks
in the SEC and rank among the top 10 nationally.
 
Mizzou coach
Gary Pinkel said several times over the course of the season that Sam’s
play along the defensive front raised the bar for his teammates. The
Tigers’ defensive line turned out to be one of the biggest factors in
the team’s turnaround season.
 
Sam’s season has earned him plenty
of accolades, including SEC Defensive Player of the Year by the
Associated Press, SEC co-Defensive Player of the Year by
the league’s 14 coaches and an All-American by USA Today. He also was a
finalist for the prestigious Lombardi, Nagurski and Hendricks awards.
 
E.J. GAINES
 
The
cornerback entered his senior season already established as one of
Mizzou’s top defensive players but still with something to prove.
 
After
being selected to the All-Big 12 first team in 2011, as a sophomore and
first-time starter, Gaines earned no postseason accolades from the SEC
following his junior season.
 
The cornerback lived up to his
reputation during his senior campaign and made an impact on the Tigers’
successful season, despite missing two games with a quad injury.
 
He
led Mizzou with four interceptions and was third with 68 tackles. He
also recorded four tackles for loss, two pass break-ups, one fumble
recovery and one quarterback hurry.
 
Gaines’ finest moment came
against Texas A&M, when he limited Aggies standout wide receiver
Mike Evans to four catches and a career-low eight yards. Evans entered
the game with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.
 
Gaines was honored as a first-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press as well as the league’s coaches.
 
ANDREW WILSON
 
The
man in the middle, Wilson was one of the better stories for Mizzou this
season. A second-generation Tiger, he was a big part of the team’s
turnaround from five to 11 wins (and counting?).
 
Wilson’s family
certainly has much to be proud of. The hard-hitting middle linebacker
led Mizzou in tackles for the third consecutive season and could surpass
his father Jay’s mark for tackles in the Cotton Bowl.
 
Jay
Wilson recorded 323 tackles as an All-Big Eight linebacker from 1980-83
and left the school as the all-time leader (he now ranks 12th). Andrew
goes into the Cotton Bowl with 317 career tackles.
 
Wilson, who
was recognized as a second-team All-SEC selection by the Associated
Press, has a team-high 98 tackles, including six for loss, to go along
with three pass break-ups, two quarterback hurries and one fumble
recovery.
 
KONY EALY
 
Ealy established himself as a
player to watch as a redshirt sophomore a year ago, when he recorded 37
tackles, including 10 for loss, and 3 1/2 sacks. He stepped up his play
even more this season and, like Sam, established himself as one of the
best defensive ends in the SEC.
 
Ealy recorded 37 tackles,
including 12 1/2 for loss, 14 quarterback hurries, 7 1/2 sacks, five
pass break-ups, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one
interception, which he returned 49 yards for a touchdown against
Indiana. Two of Ealy’s forced fumbles were against Auburn in the SEC
Championship Game. The AP named him a first-team All-SEC selection.
 
Ealy
will have a difficult decision to make after the Cotton Bowl. He has
drawn some early praise as an NFL prospect and will have to decide
whether to declare for the NFL Draft or return to Columbia for his
senior season.
 
BRAYLON WEBB
 
There are so many
different players who we could have picked for this spot. Defensive end
Markus Golden made an impact with 13 tackles for loss, seven quarterback
hurries and 6 1/2 sacks. Linebackers Donovan Bonner and Kentrell
Brothers both had their moments as well. Cornerback Randy Ponder also
deserves recognition for his work opposite Gaines in the secondary.
 
But
we’ll go with Webb, a redshirt junior safety who was around the ball
often, as his 85 tackles — second on the team behind Wilson — attest.
His seven pass break-ups tied Ponder for the team lead, and he recorded
two interceptions and 1 1/2 tackles for loss.
 
Webb also
established himself as a physical presence that opposing wide receivers
had to respect when making their way across the field.
 
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at natelatsch@gmail.com.