Missouri coach Gary Pinkel couldn’t hold in the news any longer.
Up on stage to accept the trophy after winning the Citrus Bowl last week in Orlando, Fla., Pinkel grabbed junior defensive end Shane Ray for a hug and whispered that he’d received unanimous first-round grades from his NFL early-entry evaluation.
“I was real excited,” Pinkel said.
So was Ray, who announced Wednesday during a news conference at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex that he would forgo his final year of eligibility and enter the 2015 NFL Draft.
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Ray called bypassing his senior season “one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make” and compared it to the heartbreak of sitting out the second half of the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Alabama after receiving a targeting penalty.
“Even though this is a new chapter in life, it’s hard for me to let all those guys go,” Ray said, referring to his Tigers teammates. “All the memories I’ve made here, all the people I’ve met, it’s been such a special time here for me and I really appreciate everything. It was a tough decision, but I think it was the right decision.”
“When a player comes back and is projected to be a first-round pick, if he wants to go … for all the right reasons then he should go, because that’s what I would tell my son,” Pinkel said.
That first-round grade was critical for Ray’s mother, Sebrina Johnson.
“If it would have come back second (round), I would have been like, ‘Uh-uh, you stay, and we’re going to get that degree and maybe you could take it to a one,’” Johnson said.
Ray, a Kansas City native and Bishop Miege graduate, earned consensus All-America honors and was chosen as the SEC defensive player of the year by the coaches and media after helping the Tigers win a second straight division title.
Ray racked up a Missouri single-season record 14 1/2 sacks and also finished with 22 1/2 tackles for a loss, which ranks fourth in MU history. Both marks led the SEC and ranked third nationally.
Ray also finished fifth on the Tigers with 65 tackles, including 47 solo tackles.
For his career, Ray ranks tied for fifth in program history with 19 sacks, tied with Lorenzo Williams, and just outside Missouri’s all-time top 10 with 34 tackles for a loss.
“He’s had just a tremendous career here and is one of the great competitors I’ve ever been around in my life,” Pinkel said. “He’s in my top five since I’ve been coaching.”
Ray is widely projected as a top-10 pick. ESPN college football and NFL Draft analyst Todd McShay has him slotted fifth overall to Washington in his latest mock draft.
“Obviously, he can continue to get bigger and stronger, but I just love his first-step quickness,” McShay said. “The way he can bend the edge, his ability to transition speed to power and then the fact that he just plays with a nonstop motor — I think he’s got a chance to be a really good player at the next level.”
Ray narrowly missed the SEC record for sacks, which became an official NCAA statistic in 2000. Mississippi State’s Willie Evans had 15 in 2005.
“He set a standard this year that will be hard to be matched in any year following,” Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said.
Ray is the fourth defensive lineman to leave Missouri early since 2011 — joining Aldon Smith (2011), Sheldon Richardson (2013) and Kony Ealy (2014).
“My focus is still trying to be the best that I can be every day and getting ready for this training process and everything that comes with it,” Ray said. “Right now, I’m just focused on taking it day by day and, when draft day comes, hopefully I’ll be up there. Until then, I’ve got to make sure I’m prepared enough for the toughest job interview of my life.”