A key component to 11-1 Missouri’s regular-season success has been the play this season of the Tigers’ defensive line. So, as Missouri Defensive Line Coach Craig Kuligowski prepares his defensive line to face off against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game, ShowMeMizzou.com takes a look at this unit that will play a key role in trying to slow down Auburn’s SEC-leading ground game.
All throughout Spring Football, we wrote about how Missouri’s defensive line was so dominant that it was, at times, difficult to gauge the effectiveness of Missouri’s offense. It continued into fall camp, although Missouri’s offensive line started catching up, and the competition that developed during camp just made both units better.
As the season began, Missouri’s defensive line played well, and they were able to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks, pressure that led to turnovers. But as September rolled into October, Missouri’s defensive line continued to improve, they began to dominate, and the sacks started piling up, as well. Coach Kul’s unit continued to improve throughout November, and as the regular season came to a close, Missouri found itself leading the SEC in tackles-for-loss (95), sacks (37), interceptions (18), and turnover margin (+15). And led by their front, the Missouri defense heads to Atlanta to take on Auburn’s SEC-leading ground game ranked second in the conference in scoring defense (19.4 points/game) and rushing defense (119.1 yards/game). At the same time, Missouri enters the SEC Championship game with the league’s third-best pass defense efficiency rating, allowing opponents an average pass efficiency rating of just 119.4. Needless to say, it all starts up front.
“They’ve improved their technique,” began Coach Kul, talking about the improvement made by his 8 regulars. “They’ve improved their hustle. And, they’ve improved their hitting, without question, from the first game til now. That’s been a big improvement. And, they’re playing together as a unit, which is important.”
Missouri’s defensive ends have been very, very productive. Senior Michael Sam leads the conference in TFLs (18) and sacks (10.5 sacks). He’s 1 sack shy of tying the Missouri single-season record held by Aldon Smith. He has also been credited with 9 quarterback hurries, and has recorded 42 total tackles, 2 pass-break-ups, and a forced fumble. He also recovered a fumble that he scooped up and returned for a touchdown. Deservedly, he’s up for all kinds of individual awards, as he’s been a major force for Mizzou this season.
Junior Kony Ealy has also been very, very productive, and in addition, he’s played a unique role up front for Mizzou. On passing downs, Ealy moves inside to take on double teams, and allows Coach Kul to rush the passer with an extra defensive end. Ealy’s a handful on the inside or on the outside, and on the season, he’s made 32 total tackles, including 9.5 TFLs. He’s recorded 6.5 sacks, and has been credited with 14 quarterback hurries, while also breaking up 5 passes, causing a fumble, recovering a fumble, and returning an interception for a TD.
“Kony Ealy has come inside,” explained Coach Kul. “He’s going to draw more double teams and things like that. We have him spying the quarterback. And so really that’s probably taken away some of his sack numbers that he could have had if we just left him on the outside. And yet he’s just been completely selfless and willing to do whatever we’ve asked. Really, I think he could have as high a number of sacks as anybody would if we just kept him on the edge all the time. But it makes us a better pass-rushing line by getting him inside and by getting an extra end on the outside.”
Coach Kul has been going with a four-man rotation at DE, and because there’s little or no decline in performance and production when the back-ups come in, the utilization of that four-man rotation is a key component in their effectiveness.
Sophomore Shane Ray has been listed as a co-starter virtually all season. He brings a speed rush off the edge that has produced 9 TFLs, and 4.5 sacks among his 33 total tackles. He’s also been credited with 9 QBHs, and he’s caused 2 fumbles.
Junior Markus Golden has really come on during the season, and the argument can be made that after he began the season as Missouri’s #5 DE, and played fewer snaps early in the season, that he’s become Missouri’s best DE down the stretch. On the season, Golden has amassed 50 total tackles, including 13 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks. He’s also been credited with 7 QBHs, and a forced fumble. And, he’s recovered 2 fumbles and returned an interception for a TD.
“He’s got a great attitude,” said Coach Kul, speaking of Markus Golden. “He’s got a real positive mindset. You know, I think he’s helped out our team immensely, not only with his play, but with his great attitude. Really, he’s got a never say die type of demeanor. So, he’s just been fantastic! We’re really, really proud of him! He’s a great kid, and he’s really brought a lot. Just every week, he’s getting better. I’m sure proud of him!”
While Missouri’s DEs have been getting much more of the attention, Coach Kul’s four-man rotation at defensive tackle plays a vital role in Mizzou’s success.
Despite playing on a bad wheel and missing extensive practice time throughout the season, junior Matt Hoch has been the anchor for Missouri’s interior defense. On the season, Hoch has made 35 total tackles, including 4 TFLs, and 3 sacks. He’s also been credited with 3 QBHs, and a PBU, while also forcing a fumble.
Junior Lucas Vincent is another player who has really improved this year, and who has continued to improve throughout what for him has been a very productive season, with 30 total tackles, including 5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks. He’s also been credited with 4 QBHs, 1 PBU, and a forced fumble.
Since early in the season, Lucas has shared a starting role with the very athletic RSF Harold Brantley, who has become an effective force on the inside for the Tigers. On the season, Brantley, who ran for 26 yards and a first down in successfully converting a fake punt, and who also blocked a field goal attempt, at Ole Miss, has made 22 total tackles, including 4 TFLs, and has been credited with 1 QBH, 3 PBUs, and a fumble recovery.
True freshman Josh Augusta played sparingly earlier in the season, but he’s played well, and when senior DT Marvin Foster suffered a season-ending injury, Augusta has stepped up into an increased role. The big man has played very well down the stretch. On the season, Augusta has made 7 tackles, including 3 TFLs, and 2 sacks. He’s rapidly improving, and while he’s nowhere near the dominant player that he will be in years to come, it was Augusta who Texas A&M was double-teaming last Saturday.
Coach Kul said that it will be important for Missouri to “swarm” to the football against Auburn.
“Defending a team like (Auburn), you’ve got to be good at doing your assignments,” said Coach Kul. “You know, it doesn’t sound very sexy, but you’ve got to be great at staying in your assignment, great at tackling, and you’ve got to be great at hustling to the ball, because they’ve got great athletes just like a lot of teams that we play. So, they’re going to make a guy miss from time to time, so we’ve got to have somebody else there to help fix that mistake.”