Mizzou hopes committee approach can make up for star defensive tackle’s absence

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sheldon Richardson’s impact

lingers.

Need proof?

Look

up.

Arms flexed and fists clenched, there he is,

larger than life as always.

The monstrous photo of

Richardson that has been plastered to the wall of the Mizzou Athletics

Training Complex is one of the first things you see when you walk

inside. It’s a tribute to Richardson’s success, a nod also given to

other former Tigers now in the NFL — guys like linebacker Sean

Weatherspoon, quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert and Chase Daniel, defensive

ends Aldon Smith and Ziggy Hood, and receiver Jeremy

Maclin.

“He was a tremendous player,” junior

defensive end Kony Ealy says while standing under the image of his

former teammate.

“It’s a huge loss to us. But at the

same time, we’ve got players that fulfill that role. A lot of players

are stepping up to the challenge.”

The Tigers (5-7,

2-6) came up short in just about every category during their inaugural

Southeastern Conference season. So much so that head coach Gary Pinkel

poked fun at 2012 on Monday, when he told reporters the booming cannon

that signals Tiger touchdowns at Faurot Field didn’t fire nearly as

often as it should. Looking back, Richardson was pretty much the only

player who really seemed ready.

Before he was drafted

by the New York Jets 13th overall, Richardson tore through his junior

season at Mizzou. He ruffled feathers, barbing Georgia with an

old-man football comment, ripping into his own teammates during a locker

room explosion after the Vanderbilt loss and getting himself suspended

for the Syracuse game due to poor class attendance and a failure to

finish the extra conditioning coaches assigned as

punishment.

He was a lightning rod, yes. On

the field, though, he was electric.

Richardson earned

second-team all conference honors. He totaled 10.5 tackles for loss and

4.5 sacks. His tackle total (75) was more than any other interior

linemen in the SEC — just four less than Mizzou’s leader, linebacker

Andrew Wilson.

“Sheldon is a guy you don’t replace

with just one guy,” Wilson says.

The committee that

hopes to be just as disruptive will be centered by nose guard Lucas

Vincent and defensive tackle Matt Hoch. Vincent steps into the spotlight

after seeing time as a reserve in 12 games last year. Hoch, who started

12 games at the nose in 2012, is expected to be fully recovered from a

triceps injury in time to start in Saturday’s season opener against FCS

opponent Murray State. Those who will help out inside

include redshirt freshman Harold Brantley and true freshman

Josh Augusta, a player Pinkel points to as a pleasant surprise of fall

camp.

Experience returns on the ends thanks to Ealy

and senior Michael Sam. Pinkel also considers sophomore Shane Ray a

starter because he will rotate regularly with the veteran duo.

Sam likes what he has seen so far, enough to squash

any concern an outsider has due to Richardson’s

absence.

“Every year since I’ve been here, the D-line

has been the best group of the defense,” he says. “I don’t think that’s

going to even change a little bit. Yeah, we lost Sheldon. But I don’t

think that’s going to change anything. We’ve got guys who can take his

spot. We are going to be good.”

Still, Richardson’s

looming presence on the wall of the building players enter every day

must serve as a reminder of a big vacancy. It’s a hole Sam and

his teammates believe they can cover, as long as they work

together.

“Ain’t nobody gotta be Superman,” Ealy

says. “We just have to go out there and do our

job.”

Follow Ben Frederickson on

Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at

frederickson.ben@gmail.com