COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) Shane Ray hit it out of the park.
With less than a minute remaining in Missouri’s 20-10 win against Kentucky on Nov. 1, the defensive end sacked Wildcats quarterback Patrick Towles on fourth down. Ray then stood up and celebrated with a baseball swing like that of Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer.
Tigers coach Gary Pinkel cheered from the sideline as teammates swarmed the junior, a Kansas City native who had recorded his 12th sack of the season – breaking the school record of 11 1/2 set by both Michael Sam and Aldon Smith.
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A few minutes later, Ray found and hugged his tearful mother in the stands, the person who persuaded him to take up football in high school because it might help keep him out of trouble.
”It was just a crazy moment because of course my mom knows everything that we’ve been through together,” Ray said. ”Just to share that and to see her right after the game, it was kind of like a movie. It was nice.”
With at least four games left in Missouri’s season, Ray wants to add to his record. He hopes to surpass Willie Evans’ 15 sacks for Mississippi State in 2005, the most of any Southeastern Conference player in a season since the NCAA began keeping the statistic in 2000. The late Derrick Thomas owns the all-time league mark with 27 in 1988 for Alabama.
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who has watched seven of his players earn first-team all-conference honors in the last seven years at Missouri (7-2, 4-1 SEC), says Ray is the fastest defensive end he’s had in 14 seasons with the Tigers.
”Coming out of high school, would we have said this guy’s going to break our sack record? Probably not,” Kuligowski said. ”But since he’s been here, he’s been an unbelievable competitor and hard worker, and just a pleasure to have around.”
Despite being 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds – ”still a skinny kid,” according to Kuligowski – Ray attributes his success to limiting distractions that could detract from his performance, such as NFL draft talk.
That approach came from fellow defensive end Markus Golden, a senior with 4 1/2 sacks who helps keep opposing offenses honest. When Golden didn’t play against Indiana because of a hamstring injury, the Hoosiers ran repeatedly to his side of the field, gaining 493 total yards in an upset win.
With both Golden and Ray on the field, the Tigers have allowed 299.6 yards per game and an SEC-low 4.0 yards per play against league opponents. The team will be challenged to maintain those averages this week when it travels to Texas A&M (7-3, 3-3).
Missouri will be without fifth-year safety Braylon Webb for the first half after his targeting penalty against Kentucky, and cornerback Aarion Penton remained indefinitely suspended after being arrested on suspicion of possession of marijuana last week, Pinkel said.
The coach didn’t provide a direct answer when asked if Penton, who was arrested in March for the same offense, would play Saturday.
”These are young guys,” cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. ”They all make mistakes, just like my kids. I try to treat them just like that. We move on and we learn from it.”
As for Ray, Pinkel called the player one of the ”top five” competitors he’s coached in his 38-year career.
”It’s a great visual aid for our team, because he’s got a tremendous work ethic,” Pinkel said. ”`Just watch that guy, do what he does and you’ve got a chance to be as good as you can be.”’