Reports of the death of “D-Line Zou” appear premature.
At least, that’s one takeaway from Missouri junior defensive end Charles Harris’ three-sack performance Saturday against Georgia at Memorial Stadium.
The lack of production from the Tigers’ defensive ends — only 20 tackles with no sacks and a half-tackle for a loss combined from Harris, sophomores Spencer Williams and Josh Moore and juniors Marcell Frazier and Jordan Harold — during the first two games of the season set off alarm bells.
The disclosure that Mizzou’s defensive line was shackled a bit by a new read-heavy scheme invoked head scratches, but Harris’ return to his expected havoc-wreaking ways was an encouraging sign.
“I just understood the game plan better and executed the game plan … ,” Harris said of his success against Georgia, which also included season-highs of seven tackles and four tackles for a loss. “The first two games, I didn’t really feel it, but once it was Georgia, I just felt more comfortable.”
Harris also indicated that he “just went harder” as a result and credited first-year defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross for letting “us go free a couple times.”
Cross said last week Missouri needed to earn the right to rush the passer with a better performance on early downs against the run.
The Tigers limited Bulldogs junior running back Nick Chubb to 63 yards in 19 carries and only allowed 101 rushing yards with a 2.7-yard average overall, which led to more obvious passing situations.
Senior defensive tackle Rickey Hatley and Harris each registered sacks during a three-play span midway through the second quarter.
Harris’ performance, which included two more third-quarter sacks, and the defensive line’s general disruption seemed to help Mizzou unlock what had been a struggling defense through the first 2 1/2 games during the second half against Georgia.
“He’s been working hard,” Cross said. “Like I told you guys a couple weeks ago, he was right there. It was good for him to just kind of have that game he needed and we needed as well. He’s capable of doing that every game, and to do it three times in a game and really keep the juice and energy going for us defensively was really perfect timing.”
Emotionally, the Tigers’ defense goes as Harris goes.
“Sometimes, I don’t know if he recognizes how much of an emotional leader he is,” Cross said. “He’s so dialed into doing his job and being responsible for what he needs to be, but he really is kind of the pulse and the heartbeat of what we need to do. He creates havoc up there, and we’re trying to get the rest of the D line to contribute and be that way as well.”
Seeing Harris fired up certainly had a positive effect on his linemates.
“He was on the sideline smiling finally,” Hatley said. “The past couple games, he was walking around mad and angry at everybody. To see him like that, I think you can smell blood now.”
Harris, who is widely projected as a first-round pick if decides to leave early for the NFL, insists that he wasn’t putting pressure on himself after managing only five tackles, none for a loss, with no sacks in the first two games.
Still, he admitted it felt great to get off his personal sack schneid.
“For any defensive end, when you get that first sack, it’s kind of like a sigh of relief,” Harris said. “It definitely felt good to get the first one that night. It’s always good to get the ball rolling.”
Harris said a tweak to the defensive scheme, which allowed for more penetration from the defensive tackles, was key in the improved run defense and his pass-rushing success.
“It was good,” senior linebacker Michael Scherer said. “It brought energy to the entire defense, I think. I’ve been telling you guys he hasn’t changed and has gotten better, it was just (his time to) unleash it and prove it.”