Two of Missouri's returning starters along the defensive line missed all of the spring while they recover from shoulder surgery. DE Brad Madison and DT Sheldon Richardson will each be ready for the beginning of fall camp. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was helpful in reviewing how his position group performed this spring.
"We had some younger guys who played a little bit last year," said Coach Kuligowski. "They needed to come in and look like starters. You know, I think for the most part, some guys have done that. We had some guys that were red-shirted, and some guys who didn't play as much last year, that needed to come in and look like they're guys that can help out the team. I think we did that. So, I'm pleased with our progress. We're not ready for game one yet, but we made some good progress."
Lucas Vincent really came on in limited duty at the end of last season, and this spring, he was fairly dominant. Although he's listed as the starter on the nose, Coach Kuligowski explained that they don't really designate a nose tackle on the field, but that the designation is right or left, and that either defensive tackle can and will line up over the nose.
"Lucas Vincent had a good spring," explained Coach Kuligowski. "He really did. He's a guy who can be a very physically dominating player. And, he's become more consistent, which is the big thing that we were looking for. That was a big key for us this spring, so he got better."
Perhaps the biggest development on the entire team this spring was the emergence of Matt Hoch, who moved inside to defensive tackle during the off-season. Hoch improved on a daily basis, and by the time practice resumed following spring break, Hoch was firmly established as a starter, and was demonstrating that he'll be able to be counted on this fall to play a significant role. He has the size and the strength, and he's very physical, as well as athletic.
"Last year, Matt Hoch helped us out a little bit, and contributed in quite a few ways," said Coach Kuligowski. "So, he said he wanted to play inside, and we thought that would be a good move. Now, he's stepped up, and he's been a dominant player this spring. So, he's had his best spring by far. You now, we're real excited! You know, that makes our team better."
Coach Kuligowski agreed that Hoch improved as much as anyone on the team this spring.
"We're just real pleased," said Coach Kuligowski, still talking about Hoch. "Like I said, it makes our team better……………………………………. He's pretty darn good. He uses his hands very well."
"Matt Hoch has done a tremendous job. There's no question about it," said Coach Pinkel, talking about Hoch. "Here's a guy that came in as a tight end, and moved to defensive end, and finally ends up at defensive tackle, where we thought he would possibly. Generally, when a player goes inside, it's real difficult in there. There's a lot of stuff happening in there. But, he's a big, strong, competitive, smart athlete! He's got a great future in there, and he adjusted (quickly)……………………………………. And, he can get a whole lot better. He can probably get five to ten pounds heavier. So I mean, the upside is tremendous!"
A pair of seniors, Jimmy Burge and George White, spent almost the entire spring at second-team defensive tackle. Of the two, it appeared to me that White had the better spring. Once Richardson gets back in there this fall, either Burge or White will drop back onto the third team.
"George White probably had his best spring," said Coach Kuligowski. "He was really very competitive."
Marvin Foster is another defensive tackle who missed all of spring football. Foster had knee surgery just as spring football got underway. It's expected that he'll be able to get back in there this fall.
With Madison out this spring, junior Michael Sam was the most experienced defensive end on the field, and he looked like it. Sam has developed into another quality defensive end for the Tigers. He did a good job of being physical in the run game, and he also does a good job in the pass rush, or can drop into coverage when called upon to do so.
"Michael Sam has matured over the years," continued Coach Pinkel. "He had a really, really good spring, an outstanding spring. He's a big athlete, 260 pounds. He had a really, really good spring. There's a lot of competition at that defensive line. And certainly, he did a good job."
One of the younger guys who played a little bit at defensive end last year is Kony Ealy. He came in this spring and really stepped up his game. He spent the entire spring working with the first-team defense. Ealy has gotten a lot stronger, and he's become much more consistent.
"He's probably put on as much muscle as anybody on this team," said Coach Kuligowski, speaking of Ealy. "He's a guy that we're going to have to count on, and he's a very accountable, dependable guy. So, we're real pleased. He's a great big physical guy. He's very good."
Brayden Burnett missed a lot of time this spring, but ended up working with the second unit in the Spring Game. He should be fully recovered by fall camp, and he will be a factor in the competition for a spot on the two-deep depth chart.
Burnett's main competition will come from red-shirt freshman Shane Ray. Ray is another player who really got better throughout the spring. He's gotten bigger, stronger, and faster with his work in the weight room, and he's a relentless competitor. He was very impressive this spring with a speed rush off of the edge.
"Shane Ray did a great job," said Coach Kuligowski. "All during the year, last season, he was down there on the scout team, and he was giving us fits. He really got better this spring! He's got a good stretch to go to get better, but I thought he really did a good job this spring. He's a competitive kid. He wants to be the best all of the time. So, if you do that often enough, you're going to be successful…………………………………… We're happy with the way that Shane Ray has done this spring."
My guess is that Ray enters fall camp as the #5 DE, but he'll challenge the two-deep all day, every day. Coming out of the spring, the next guy in at defensive end was walk-on Derrion Thomas.
"They've done a great job," said Coach Pinkel, in reply to a question about Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. "Brad Madison is an all-conference player. He hasn't been out there (this spring). He'll get back in there to compete (with those guys). You know, we've got a couple of young players that have really done a good job. We'll see where that thing goes. There's a lot of competition there, and that's good. That makes you better. Most positions, except for quarterback, we'll play multiple numbers of players. So, you don't have to be the starter to get playing time, and our players understand that."