COLUMBIA — The question has been posed to junior defensive tackle Matt Hoch almost nonstop since December, so when he heard it again Saturday morning — How does Missouri plan on replacing Sheldon Richardson? — he couldn’t help but laugh … and sigh.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
“Yeah, I’ve heard it a million times,” said Hoch, a junior defensive tackle who is entering his second year as a starter.
So has junior defensive end Kony Ealy.
“I’m not saying we’re better or worse than we were with Sheldon, but he’s moved on,” Ealy said, with emphasis. “He’s in a whole different place right now. He’s not going to be back here. We can’t compare him to anybody on the team. The only thing we can do is pick our games up.”
Ealy is just one of several players who have, since the beginning of camp, said it will take a team effort to replace the 6-foot-2, 295-pound Richardson, a first-round NFL Draft pick by the New York Jets in April.
“I think a lot of times, when you’ve got a great player that just left or is in front of you, it’s a great motivator,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “You watch him play, you learn things and you apply those things to your game. You’re a competitor. … You compete to be as good or better.”
Matching Richardson’s production may be tough, however. He tied for the team lead in tackles for loss with 101/2 and tied for second in tackles with 75, a number that is almost unheard of for interior linemen because of the steady diet of double teams they face. That is doubly true in the downhill-centric Southeastern Conference.
“It’s for real,” said Hoch, who’s 6-5, 295. “There’s definitely some strong hosses on those offensive lines. You’ve just got to be physical; you’ve just got to stay low and turn your hips and get in those gaps because those double teams are no joke. They’re pretty fierce.”
Missouri learned the hard way last season, finishing ninth in the 14-team SEC in run defense. The Tigers also finished 11th in scoring defense, giving up 28.4 points per game.
And that was with Richardson and linebacker Zaviar Gooden, a third-round pick by the Tennessee Titans. Safety Kenronte Walker, linebacker Will Ebner and cornerback Kip Edwards, all multiyear starters, also must be replaced.
Senior linebacker Andrew Wilson said the Tigers are focusing this year on stopping the run by continuing to emphasize gap control, a notion defensive coordinator Dave Steckel confirmed Friday.
“Am I happy with the run defense? No,” Steckel said. “I think we played the run well at times, and at other times we haven’t. It comes down to guys improving, getting in their gaps, using their fundamentals and getting off blocks.
“Football hasn’t changed over the years: Be where you’re supposed to be, use the proper fundamental and get off the block.”
The good news is that even without Richardson, Missouri boasts an experienced defensive line. Hoch and Ealy are returning starters along with senior end Michael Sam, while junior Lucas Vincent, who is slated to replace Richardson at tackle, earned experience as a backup the last few seasons. Pinkel is also high on athletic redshirt freshman Harold Brantley, who might figure into the mix at the tackle spot opposite Hoch.
“There’s not an expectation level there, other than: ‘Can you play your best?’” Pinkel said. “That’s where our focus is. You don’t have to be Sheldon. That goes for all those guys.”