Many somewhat-proven players must step up for Mizzou defense this fall
Michael Sam is a Ram. So is E.J. Gaines.
Kony Ealy? He’s a Panther now. And Andrew Wilson is a Dolphin.
Those four are among the defensive players from last year’s SEC East championship team who will not be taking the field for Missouri when the Tigers host South Dakota State on Aug. 30.
Mizzou returns just four defensive starters from last year’s 12-2 squad: defensive tackle Matt Hoch, nose guard Lucas Vincent, linebacker Kentrell Brothers and strong safety Braylon Webb. That means there will be plenty of new faces in key roles for the Tigers this fall, a season after Sam and Co. finished fifth in the national rankings.
"We’re capable of doing the same thing and much more than we did last year," senior defensive end Markus Golden said. "We’ve got guys with a lot of experience. Even though guys didn’t start, we’ve got guys that came in and played series right after them guys, subbing in as starters last year. So we feel like a lot of guys got enough playing time to where they can come in and be ready to start in a full game."
Count Golden among those.
He was one of the Tigers’ bigger contributors last season, even though he was a reserve. Golden racked up 55 tackles, including 13 for loss, 6 1/2 sacks, two fumble recoveries and one interception in 14 games.
Junior Shane Ray, the opposite defensive end, also made a big impact coming off the bench. He had 39 tackles, including nine for loss, 4 1/2 sacks, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
Golden, Ray and Mizzou’s interior linemen — including Hoch, Vincent and sophomores Harold Brantley and Josh Augusta — could give the Tigers one of the better defensive line groups in the rough and rugged SEC.
"With Louie (Vincent), Josh, Matt, including Harold Brantley, I think we should be real good because we got a bunch of guys that got experience," Golden said.
With Webb (89 tackles, three interceptions) leading the secondary and Brothers (70 tackles, three interceptions) pacing the linebackers, the Tigers’ D might not be far off the group that ranked 34th among FBS schools in points against (23.1 per game) a year ago.
So, yeah, coach Gary Pinkel’s cupboard is hardly bare.
"I think a lot of people are going to be surprised because, even at the positions we lost (players), those positions even in fall camp were still kind of being battled for," sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. "There’s a lot of kids who are in those positions who got a lot of playing time last year. … So all the people that we have to replace are being replaced by people who have a good amount of experience and know what the situation is like."
Scherer, who will enter fall camp as the starter at the strongside linebacker spot, is one of the new starters to keep an eye on this fall.
"I’m just ready to prove myself, to both everybody outside the team and the team," he said. "To show that I can be the guy that they rely on and that they can trust me being in there the whole game."
Scherer and Darvin Ruise, a senior, were listed as starters at linebacker going into spring practice. Donavin Newsom, another sophomore, will also be a guy to watch among the linebackers, where Mizzou must replace two starters in Wilson, the team’s leading tackler, and Donovan Bonner, who was fifth on the team in tackles.
Replacing Wilson and Bonner will be a tall task for the Tigers, but Scherer thinks this group will be up to the challenge.
"We replace them by having younger guys step up and into those positions," he said. "I think we have probably one of the most athletic group of linebackers that Mizzou’s had in a while. I think that’s going to help us out a lot, just our natural athletic ability between all three of us, and I think that me and Donavin (Newsom) can both step up and play very big roles this year."
The same can be said for sophomore cornerbacks Aarion Penton and John Gibson, both of whom got valuable experience when Gaines missed time with an injury last year. Penton and Gibson each snagged interceptions last fall.
Ian Simon, a junior, was listed as the starter at free safety going into the spring. He had 42 tackles, including 3 1/2 for loss, and one interception in 13 games last season.
The new-look Mizzou secondary, which should be helped by the pass rush from Golden and Ray, will be one of the areas of concern for the Tigers, with three seniors moving on and two youngsters in Penton and Gibson in key spots.
Another concern for the Tigers: They go from the hunter to the hunted after being the surprise of the SEC last season.
"We’ve got a target on our back," Scherer said. "Some people feel embarrassed by what we did to them last year and some people think it’s a fluke, maybe. We’ve earned a lot of respect, but we know what’s coming for us this season. We know what people want from us this season."