There’s a 40-foot wall in the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex, just outside the auditorium where MU football coach Gary Pinkel conducts his weekly news conference. It is adorned with larger-than-life pictures of former Missouri All-Americans and first-round NFL Draft picks under Pinkel.
Sophomore defensive end Charles Harris stood in that foyer Monday and talked about his drive for greatness, then glanced up at the wall.
“I can see a couple spaces that are open,” Harris said, flashing a quick smile.
Missouri’s recent track record of producing elite pass-rushing defensive ends is unparalleled.
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Since 2011, the Tigers have produced a unanimous All-American (Michael Sam), two first-round NFL draft picks (Aldon Smith and Shane Ray) and two second-round selections (Markus Golden and Kony Ealy).
Many expect Harris — a Lincoln Prep graduate, who was set to play basketball at Missouri Western before committing to MU on signing day in 2013 — to emerge as the next great Tigers defensive end.
That seems like a lot of pressure for Harris, who only started playing football as a junior in high school after never attending a youth camp or combine, and has started one college game.
Harris doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s pressure, but it’s not pressure on me,” Harris said. “People are going to say what they want to say, but I don’t really listen to it. I feel like I’m going to be great, whether that’s on the field, in a classroom with academics or giving back with my career. I’m going to be great no matter what. … I’ve worked too hard, and I’ve come too far for me not to be great.”
Harris’ work ethic since arriving at Missouri has been praised.
“He’s a monster,” former Tigers defensive tackle Matt Hoch said last summer. “He’s got one of the best motors I’ve ever seen. His work ethic is legit. It’s the best work ethic I’ve seen in a long time.”
Nobody seems to worry how Harris, who is studying to become an occupational therapist, will handle the increased demands on his productivity.
“The great thing about Charles — and he has a lot of great attributes — is that he comes to work every day and plays with tremendous energy and passion,” first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “I’ve been really, really impressed with his demeanor and competitive spirit every day.
“If you just look physically at his size, speed, quickness, he has those, and he works every day in the weight room with (strength) coach (Pat) Ivey and his staff to develop and continue to grow in those areas. Since January, I believe he’s really gone to another level.”
Playing sparingly behind Golden and Ray in 2014, Harris totaled 19 tackles, including two sacks and four tackles for a loss.
Missouri lost all five full- or part-time starters — Ray, Golden, Hoch, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley — off last season’s defensive line. That group combined for 275 tackles (134 solo) with 66 1/2 tackles for loss, 36 of the team’s 44 sacks and 28 quarterback hurries.
There is an expectation that the Tigers’ “D-Line Zou” assembly factory will continue to produce star defensive ends, which means a sizable burden falls on Harris’ shoulders, though Missouri’s coaches are quick to deflect any comparisons with Ray or Golden.
“I don’t think it’s fair, because every player is different,” Odom said, “but I think Charles can handle that. Those comments are expectations, but he’s going to be his own guy. (Defensive line) coach (Craig) Kuligowski has done a great job developing guys every year in those spots, and this year is no different.”
Harris doesn’t shy away from the history and tradition at his position nor the expectation to perform at an elite level.
“I feel like I’m going to be so good to where teams are going to start double-teaming me, and it’s going to open it up for Rickey Hatley, Josh Augusta, Marcell Frazier and let them get all the sacks or whatever the case may be,” he said. “I’m going to be just as happy when they get a sack or a (tackle for a loss), but I’m going to make sure that every team prepares for Charles Harris.”
Of course, Harris ultimately wants greatness to be his calling card and already has placed Ray’s single-season record of 14 1/2 sacks squarely in his sights.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” Harris said. “Double-digits no matter what, but, of course, I’m going to try to go for the record. I want to break it, so I’m going to try to get 15.”