University of Missouri

Tigers’ defensive linemen are suddenly on the loose

Updated: 2013-10-09T04:51:05Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

— It was only two weeks ago that Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was fielding questions about his absentee pass rush.

The Tigers, 5-0 and ranked No. 25 in The Associated Press poll, managed three sacks in a season-opening win against Murray State but were shut out in that department against Toledo and Indiana.

Granted, the Rockets and Hoosiers, who both deploy up-tempo attacks with a lot of three-step drops, didn’t hang on to the ball very long.

Still, the lack of sacks sure seemed like a reason for concern — one that’s been put to rest after Missouri racked up 12 sacks over the last two weeks, including seven in a 51-28 victory Saturday at Vanderbilt despite playing a three-man line most of the game.

“It gets a little bit contagious,” Pinkel said. “All of a sudden, you get one sack, then two, and now you’re expecting yourself to get sacks. It’s not, ‘I hope I get a couple sacks this game,’ but: ‘I’m going to get some.’”

Senior Michael Sam led the way in both games with three sacks against Arkansas State and three more against the Commodores.

“If you study the film on Michael Sam, his tenacity, his physicalness — I wish I had better adjectives and was an English major — but he has a passion and love for the game that has always been there,” Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “Now, all this hard work over time along with his focus is really paying off.”

For his efforts Sam, who leads the Southeastern Conference with six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss, won the conference’s defensive lineman of the week award after both performances.

“Mike’s success comes from him being relentless,” sophomore defensive end Shane Ray said. “He’s a high-motor guy. He’s going to keep running and keep coming after you. He’s putting everything on the line for this football team, which is expected out of a senior leader.”

Pinkel credits that energy for the spike in Sam’s sacks.

“It’s interesting how kids mature, and all of a sudden they can change and go to a different level,” Pinkel said. “He’s playing at a different level right now. He’s a very good athlete … but his energy level and how hard he’s playing, that’s why he’s doing so well.”

It’s an attribute the rest of Missouri’s defensive linemen try to emulate.

“His play on the field definitely makes him a leader,” Ray said. “We follow Mike. He’s got the experience and is showing the young guys how it’s done out there.”

Other than that, not much has changed from the start of the season for Missouri’s pass rush — well, not much other than the results.

“We actually haven’t changed anything,” junior defensive end Markus Golden said. “We’re just grinding out there, going hard.”

The Tigers’ depth at the position, which also includes junior Kony Ealy and senior Brayden Burnett, also factors heavily into the recent success getting after opposing quarterbacks, because it keeps the Tigers fresh.

“We see it as we have nine starters,” junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “Anybody on our defensive line could go to any other school in the country and start there. We’re just lucky enough to have them all here.”

Missouri sits second in the SEC with 15 sacks by seven different players after totaling 21 all of last season, but sacks might be tough to come by against No. 7 Georgia at 11 a.m. Saturday at Sanford Stadium. The Bulldogs, 4-1, have allowed only seven sacks in five games.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com.

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