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