Following Missouri's 45-28 victory at Indiana in which Kony Ealy batted down a pass at the line of scrimmage and intercepted another one that he returned 49 yards for a touchdown, Ealy was recognized by the conference as the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week.
On Monday, Ealy and his coaches fielded questions about his amazing interception and return, and his improved play this season. He was asked how he felt about receiving the weekly conference award?
"It is just an award," stated the 6'5" 275-pound junior defensive end. "I definitely recognize it because it is an award that is not given to everybody. You know, and I'm grateful for that. But, it is just another award to me. I have to focus on our next opponent, (and) get out there and continue to do what I can to get better."
On the young season, Ealy is leading all defensive linemen nationally in passes defended, which includes his one interception and four pass-break-ups. The former basketball player and all-around athlete was asked about his ability to get his hands on passes at the line of scrimmage?
"It is something I have always had since high school," explained Ealy. "As I go on through college play, and observe NFL players, I idolize players like J.J. Watt. It just helps out all the way around."
His head coach was asked the same question?
"I think he's kind of gifted a little bit there," said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel, speaking of Ealy's ability to get his hands on the football at the line of scrimmage. "I mean, just it's kind of a part of him. You know, he's got great range, I mean, his size. He's a big guy, a big dude. It was neat to see that, batting a couple down, and obviously taking it (to the end zone). It was a big play for us. That's neat to have your defense (score). It was a big play point-wise, and where it was. It was 14-14. I mean, we're pretty much dominating the game, and it's14-14. Then all of a sudden our offense goes down and scores. And he comes out and makes a play, and it just flipped the game right back around real quick. I really liked how our football team handled that. You know, we went right out there and got it back to 28-14. When your defense can produce like that and make some plays like that it's huge! That's huge for momentum."
Missouri Defensive Coordinator Dave Steckel weighed in on Ealy's ability to get his hands on balls at the line of scrimmage.
"It's both learned and (innate)," explained Coach Steckel. "You talk about skill! It takes more skill to be able to put your paw on the ground, rush the quarterback, I mean, your worrying about the guy in front of you, and your rushing the quarterback, and then, here comes the ball, and you've got to put your hand up and bat the ball down. That takes a great skill! And, I think it's a trait that he came in with, and I think it's a skill that Kul continues to develop with a lot of his individual drills."
Every day, the coaching staff put their position players through individual drills, including take-away drills. Coach Kuligowski runs a drill that pretty closely approximates Ealy's interception against Indiana. The defensive lineman comes off of a "block" as he rushes the "QB". Coach Kul then throws the football and the lineman tries to get a hand on it. In watching these drills over the years, I've frequently seen Kony Ealy snatch the ball out of the air. It's an extremely athletic play that I've seen Ealy and others perform in practice.
"(Those) individual drills paid off," said Ealy. "My hat goes off to the coaches for making us go through those individual take-away drills. It pays off in the game. You don't realize it until it happens……………………………… We know it's for a good purpose."
Missouri has good depth up front on the defensive side of the football. The Tigers are regularly playing 10 defensive linemen, including five defensive ends and five defensive tackles. Ealy talked about his approach to rotating in and out.
"We all just go out there," said Ealy. "We're all on the same page. We just all go out there and go as hard as we can………………………………… We go as hard as we can and get after them and try to create a hornets' nest. We've got plenty of fresh (replacements). We've just got to go out there and play, and dominate the game for sixty minutes."