Defensive End/Outside Linebacker
New Madrid, Missouri
New Madrid High School
While teammate Michael Sam was the recipient of the Southeastern Conference's Defensive Player of the Year Award, Ealy was the recipient of most of the attention pro scouts gave when arriving at the Columbia campus to analyze Tigers talent. The once 207-pound freshman has not only grown in size since joining the Missouri program, he is also making a steady climb into the first day picture of the NFL Draft.
Ealy wasn't exactly a beanpole when he arrived at Missouri four years ago, but he certainly wasn't one of the nation's most versatile and elite defenders either. "When he got here, he was 207 pounds as a freshman," Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. "Now, he's 273, but you always saw this extraordinary athlete - big frame, long, and a potentially broad-shouldered guy." It's that athleticism that makes Ealy unique, especially with an eye toward his NFL future.
Not only can Ealy get after the quarterback, but he's also a hard-nosed run defender on the edge. Look no further than his 14.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage, 9.5 sacks, 14 quarterback pressures and three forced fumbles as proof. Additionally, the rush end has enough speed to drop in coverage, blended with enough bulk to move inside on the next down.
"You've got to be able to speed by guys on the outside and, on the inside, you've got to be able to run them over and make them miss," Missouri defensive-line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "Good players can do that, and Kony's had a real good year for us doing that. His sack total might have been higher if we had left him outside, but the whole team has benefited from doing this."
Being a versatile player, tough vs. both the run and the pass, is a point of pride for Ealy. "I'm just not limited to my game," he said. "I try to play an all-around game. If they need me to go play linebacker, that's what I'll do." About the only defensive position Ealy doesn't think he'd flourish at is cornerback, though he did return an interception 49 yards for a touchdown vs. Indiana earlier this season.
"I'm not like (senior cornerback) E.J. (Gaines)," Ealy said. "I can't run a 4.4 (40-yard dash) and I can't cover the deep third." That's about all Ealy can't do. "He's able to change direction and move, which is very unusual for guys that big to be able to do those kinds of things," Pinkel said. "We've been fortunate to have a few of them around here, but he's also developed a very good work ethic and become a very good practice player."
More than anything, Ealy's maturity is perhaps the biggest difference between his first two seasons as a member of the varsity. Combined, he registered 4.5 sacks with 13 stops-for-loss while playing on the weak side. Shifting to the strong-side in 2013, he garnered All-American honors for his relentless attacks in the backfield.
"He's really become a team player," junior right tackle Mitch Morse said. "Not to say that he wasn't before, but the guy really cares about his team and he's the kind of guy who comes up in the locker room if stuff's looking grim to say, ‘Hey, we've got each other's backs.' " That wasn't always the case.
"Kony's kind of crazy," junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. "He lives in his own world. He does his own thing and doesn't really care what you've got to say about it. ... We've learned to work together over time and he's matured a lot. When you come in with somebody like that and see them grow up, it's a really cool thing to see."
During his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, he had a reputation as a stats-obsessed player who freelanced too much. "My first couple years here, I was just running like a chicken with his head cut off," Ealy said. "Now, I'm actually listening to coach Kul and taking in everything that he's brought to the table as far as my production. … I've kind of matured into a leader of the team and just going out there trying to take on every little point that comes to me."
That effort and growth hasn't gone unnoticed. "He's in better control of his emotions, he's a harder worker, he's more dedicated, so this season he's really been a very good teammate and beneficial to our team," Kuligowski said.
When Missouri recruiters ventured to New Madrid High School, they saw in Ealy a very versatile athlete who could potentially make an impact on either side of the ball, as he starred as an outside linebacker on defense and a running and receiving threat on offense for his school. He did not begin playing organized football until his sophomore season, so the Tigers coaches felt that their recruit had a huge upside in terms of continuing development. They determined that if he signed, they would project him to eventually fit into a defensive end position.
Scout.com rated him as the nation's 13th-best defensive end prospect, and considered him to be a good athlete who does well in space and who has good speed in pursuit.
Ealy was also ranked as the nation's 49th-best defensive end prospect by ESPN.com. He became a starter on both sides of the ball as a junior, delivering 89 tackles, including 31 stops-for-loss and 10.5 quarterback sacks while adding 21 quarterback pressures. On offense, he caught 22 passes for 501 yards and three touchdowns.
As a senior, Ealy received first-team all-state, all-conference, all-region and all-district honors after he amassed 104 total tackles, 28 behind the line of scrimmage, with 12.5 sacks, 31 quarterback pressures, five forced fumbles, seven pass break-ups and four blocked kicks. He also managed 27 receptions for 596 yards and six touchdowns while also running for 162 yards and two scores.
Ealy also excelled in basketball for New Madrid, receiving several scholarship offers from colleges to play on the hardwood court. He earned all-state, and numerous all-district, all-region and all-conference honors in hoops during his final two seasons.
Ealy turned down scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Nebraska, Arkansas, Mississippi and Illinois to enroll at Missouri in 2010. The coaches decided to red-shirt him that season, allowing him to bulk up and add needed strength in the Tigers' weight training program.
He arrived at 2011 fall camp checking in at 250 pounds, listed third on the depth chart at weak-side defensive end. He appeared in 12 games, posting 13 tackles with a sack and three stops-for-loss.
Ealy emerged from 2012 preseason drills at the top of the depth chart at weak-side end, starting 10 of the 12 contests on the schedule. He placed third on the squad with 10 stops behind the line of scrimmage, which included 3.5 sacks. He collected 37 tackles and two of his five QB pressures resulted in interceptions.
Ealy earned All-Southeastern Conference first-team and All-American Super Sleeper Team accolades as a junior in 2013. He ranked fifth in the league with 9.5 sacks, the fifth-best season total in school history. He had 14.5 stops-for-loss, deflected six passes and posted 14 pressures while causing three fumbles.
Shortly after the Tigers defeated Oklahoma State in the 2014 Cotton Bowl, Ealy announced that he would not be returning to school and was entering the NFL Draft. "I love my teammates," Ealy said. "I love my coaches. I've gone from a boy to a man here. I feel like it's time for me to go on to the next level … so, yeah, I decided to go ahead and declare, made myself available to go into the NFL."
Ealy said he reached the decision two weeks ago after getting a positive draft evaluation from the NFL and then consulting with his father, Willie, and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
Ealy finished with six tackles in the Cotton Bowl, including two sacks vs. the Cowboys.
"He'll do real good in the NFL, because he's got the size and the strength and the speed," said Missouri senior left tackle Justin Britt, who also has a possible NFL future. "I see why people rave about him. He's also very intelligent on the field, so I think he'll do great."
Ealy started 25-of-38 games at Missouri – 11 at weak-side defensive end and 14 on the strong-side…Registered 93 tackles (53 solos) with 14 sacks for minus 97 yards, 27.5 stops for losses of 122 yards and 19 quarterback pressures…Deflected 13 passes and intercepted another that he returned 49 yards for a touchdown…Had one fumble recovery and caused four others…