COLUMBIA — Missouri defensive end Shane Ray wants to be known for big hits and big plays.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
The last three weeks, Ray, a sophomore from Bishop Miege, has started to build that reputation.
It started Oct. 12 at Georgia, where Ray chugged around the Bulldogs’ left tackle and delivered a crushing blow against quarterback Aaron Murray, jarring the ball loose. Michael Sam scooped it up and scored a pivotal touchdown in the Tigers’ 41-26 victory.
Hitting Murray for the first sack of his college career seemed to light Ray’s fuse.
“Once you get that first hit on the quarterback, it’s like getting a taste for blood and you want it more and more,” Ray said. “I want to be known as a very physical player, especially when it comes to contact. I don’t want to just get to the quarterback and pull him down. I want to hit the quarterback and let him know he’s going to feel that every time I get to you.”
Ray made a similar play a week later against Florida’s Tyler Murphy, drilling him from behind and forcing another fumble. Ray added a sack in his third consecutive game when he smothered South Carolina’s Connor Shaw for an 11-yard loss Saturday.
Ray’s sack effectively ended the Gamecocks’ drive and stood as the only drive led by Shaw that didn’t result in points.
“He’s shown he can make big plays,” senior cornerback Randy Ponder said. “He’s a fast guy. He clocked in at like a 4.4 (in the 40-yard dash), so he’s extremely fast, especially for that position.”
Ray acknowledges that speed is his best asset, but now he’s adding experience and technique to his arsenal.
“He’s getting more experience, and the more experience he gets I think he uses the technique that coach (Craig Kuligowski) teaches him,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “It’s really great to see that.”
Ray is also taking notes from his more experienced teammates, learning from the example set by Sam, who was announced Tuesday as a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award as college football’s defensive player of the year, and junior defensive end Kony Ealy.
“It’s just hard work and dedication,” Ray said. “I’ve got a lot of guys in the room that I’m looking up to as far as Kony (Ealy), Mike Sam and Markus (Golden). I don’t want to be the guy that, when I’m on the field, there’s a drop-off.”
Instead, Ray wants to be an important member of the pack.
“Being in the defensive line room, you’ve got to have a dog mentality … because the quarterback is essentially our bone,” he said. “You’re in the dirtiest, biggest fight in the trenches all game. You’re working and working. You can’t stop. Those guys (Sam and Ealy) have taught me that you can’t stop. You have to be relentless — relentless to the quarterback, relentless to the ball. I’ve embraced that from those two and used it in my play.”
Ray had three quarterback hurries and 2 1/2 tackles for a loss as a redshirt freshman last season. He already has six tackles for a loss to go with three sacks and two forced fumbles this season, positioning himself as a worthy successor to former Missouri defensive ends Justin Smith and Aldon Smith as well as Sam and Ealy.
“He’s on the right path,” Ealy said. “I can’t really put a prediction on it, but we’ll see in due time. He’s got hunger to go out there and make plays for the team.”
Ray knows he’s got a long way to go, but at least he’s started down the path.
“I can’t really say that for myself right now, because I’m just now starting to make some plays,” Ray said. “I’m still humble and I’m a young guy … but I definitely can say, by the time I leave this school, I would like to mention in the top category with those D linemen.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.