The Mike Tomlin traveling road show moves today from Michigan State to Missouri, where the Steelers' coach and his contingent will scout "D-Line Zou," so dubbed by Markus Golden at this year's combine.
The edge rusher with the edgy disposition was asked whether he can continue a tradition of Missouri-to-NFL defensive excellence made popular recently by defensive rookies of the year Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson, but a tradition that also stretches back to Justin Smith and even Andy Russell, the former Missouri great who captained the Steelers through their first two Super Bowl titles.
"I know I know I'm going to continue the tradition in the NFL," vowed Golden. "It means a lot to me. It means a lot to all my teammates. Everybody just got pride to play for D-Line 'Zou.
"You know, if you're going to play for D-Line 'Zou, you've got to get out there and make plays, and that's what I did. That's what a lot of young guys are going to keep on doing. That's what Shane did and a lot of guys before us."
Golden and bookend Shane Ray did what no other duo at Missouri had ever done when they registered double-digit sacks last season.
Ray, the more highly touted of the two, set a Missouri school record with 14.5 sacks last season, his only season as a starter as he and Golden rotated behind Kony Ealy and Michael Sam the previous year.
Ray measured in at the combine at 6-2 5/8, 245 with long 33 1/8-inch arms. He did 21 reps on the bench but didn't run because of a foot injury suffered in Missouri's bowl game. Ray said then that he'll workout completely at today's pro day, which, he said, will pique the interest of Tomlin, who sat down for a formal interview with Ray in Indianapolis.
"He's a great coach," Ray said at the combine. He had dinner with Tomlin last night. "I hope they like me," Ray added. "He talked to me about my 40. He said, 'You run that 4.4 like they say and I'll come get you myself.' I said, 'Coach, I can do that for you.'"
Ray was born and raised in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, just across the border from Kansas City, Missouri. He recorded 4.5 sacks as a redshirt sophomore behind Ealy, and then won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award last season. Ray's father, Wendell Ray, was a fifth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings in 1981.
Ray has been considered a top 10-type pick this draft season, but in a crop of deep pass-rushers, and with some scouts not believing in Ray, it's possible he could slip to pick 22 and the Steelers.
As for those non-believers, Ray addressed them with a pre-combine tweet when he wrote: "I hear the noise. I'm using it as motivation."
"The noise," Ray explained, "is the comparisons, the people saying 'Is he better than this? Is he short? Is he 6-1? Are his arms short? Can he really run? Can he do all the things people speculate about me?' That's just noise to me. I kinda laugh about it because I don't know who told everyone I was six foot. I'm taller than that. And I don't have short arms. But I always find something to motivate me in everything that I do. Sometimes you might have to look at the media and comparisons and push yourself just a little bit harder just to prove everybody wrong. That's kinda what I've been trying to do my whole life, prove to everybody I'm an elite football player."
What would he improve about his game?
"I really honestly don't feel like I'm perfect at all," Ray said. "Every day I work hard and ask my coach, 'What can I work on? Can my hand placement get better? Can my steps get better on my stunts? Can my pass rush improve?' With me, I'm constantly trying to find areas to improve myself. I just learned that from watching greats such as Derrick Thomas and Lawrence Taylor and listening to Michael Strahan talk about how these guys every day in practice would try to perfect their skill. That's how I carry myself every day."
That answer had to be music to Tomlin's, or any pro coach's, ears, just as his answer to a question about setting the edge in the run game.
"Setting the edge simply is off of your hand placement and your explosiveness off the ball," Ray said. "This season I played offensive linemen that were 6-8 and 6-9, 350 pounds, and I set the edge easily, just as well as anyone else in the nation. It's simply coming from placing your hands in the right place and having a good base, and I did that. In the run game, people think I'm just a pass-rusher but I'm not. I take a lot of pride in the run game, being physical. My solo tackles speak for themselves as well. I'm chasing guys down across the field. I like to think of myself as a complete player."
What does his film show?
"Every team that I've talked to pulled up my film," he said. "They had film of me dropping into coverage and making open-field tackles. Honestly I think they're pretty pleased with what they see. My confidence and my work ethic will show that any system I can go to, I can fit in and do whatever the coach needs me to do."
While Ray comes across as upbeat and energetic, his bookend, Golden, comes across as surly, even mean, and perhaps quite nasty -- as a pass-rusher should.
At 6-2 3/8, 260, Golden is more of a mid-round prospect, particularly after running a 4.9 40 at the combine. He has short 31-inch arms, but big 10 1/2-inch hands. He had 10 sacks last year, a year after recording more tackles (55) than either starter Ealy or Sam.
"I've had some (formal interviews), but I'm keeping them private," Golden told reporters at the combine. "I've been meeting with both 4-3 and 3-4 teams. The scouts know I can play both positions."
Golden was asked about playing opposite of Ray.
"It was great playing across from Shane," he said. "It was competitive. We're true competitive guys, and we've got a competitive defensive line room. We've got a great coach who coaches us up and expects a lot from us. That's why at Mizzou our defensive line, our defensive ends, put up numbers."
Did he compete with Ray for sacks?
"Of course," Golden said with a look of disbelief. "Of course I did. Shane had 14; I got 10. We each had 20-plus tackles-for-loss. Yeah, we competed. We competed a lot. That's what we do at Mizzou. If you're going to play the D-line at Mizzou, D-line 'Zou, you've got to be competitive. That's just automatic."