Usually, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel refrains from comparing players, especially his current lot to past stars.
He made an exception, an unsolicited one at that, when asked about the emergence of sophomore defensive tackle Harold Brantley on Saturday after a 42-13 win at Florida.
Brantley — a 6-foot-3 and 297-pound Hershey, Pa., native — racked up six tackles against the Gators, recorded a sack in his third straight game, forced a Jeff Driskel interception with pressure and capped his night by blocking an extra point in the fourth quarter.
“He’s getting better,” Pinkel said. “Very talented. I talked to you a year and a half ago about Harold Brantley. He’s just very talented and has great movement. He’s a little bit like Sheldon (Richardson).”
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Richardson, who is now in his second season with the Jets, was a second-team All-SEC performer for the Tigers in 2012 when he led the conference’s interior linemen with 75 tackles.
He was drafted No. 13 overall and won NFL defensive rookie of the year honors last season.
“It’s pressure, but I like it,” Brantley said. “And it’s pressure in a good way, because, if I can be compared to someone like him, it lets me know that I’m taking steps in the right direction. But it also lets me know that I’ve got a lot more work to do to make sure I fill those big shoes.”
Brantley has a similar build to Richardson’s, and he’s developing a similar knack for play-destroying penetration at the heart of Missouri’s rapidly improving defense.
“Harold’s really stepped it up,” senior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “It’s been amazing what he’s done. … He’s got that mindset that he’s going to make the play every play it’s his to make.”
As a redshirt freshman last season, Brantley appeared in all 14 games, including six starts, and finished with 30 tackles, including five for a loss.
This season, he leads the Tigers’ interior linemen in tackles (26) and sacks (three) and is tied with Vincent for the most tackles for a loss (four).
“It’s a glimpse of what he is,” Pinkel said. “He’s still a young guy, and he’s got so much potential.”
Brantley returned punts in high school as a 260-pound defensive lineman, a skillset he’s shown on two punt-fake runs for first downs the last two seasons.
“I’ve watched it, because he brags about it, and in order to believe it, you’ve kind of got to see it sometimes,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “The kid’s a freak.”
Scherer continued, “He’s probably one of the faster defensive tackles in the country. He’s athletic, he’s big, he’s powerful — one of the strongest kids in the weight room I’ve seen in a while.
“He’s really got it all and, when he starts making moves and getting back into the backfield, he’s causing trouble in the backfield, and he’s no different than Sheldon Richardson. … As he develops his technique on the defensive line, he’ll only get better and better. He’s a hard guy to run away from.”
Brantley, who lost weight due to illness in the spring and briefly seemed to fall out of favor with MU’s coaches, has only scratched the surface of his talent.
“Oh yeah, he’s an animal,” said junior defensive end Shane Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate. “He’s the closest thing to Sheldon Richardson I’ve seen. I’m just so excited. His work ethic is just continuing to increase. He’s gotten bigger and, doing what he’s doing, I’m just looking forward to seeing what he’s going to do these next couple years.”