Missouri Tigers’ Kony Ealy matures into defensive leader and future NFL prospect

Defensive end Kony Ealy wasn’t exactly a beanpole when he arrived at Missouri four years ago, but he certainly wasn’t one of the nation’s most versatile and elite defenders either.

“When he got here, he was 207 pounds as a freshman,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “Now, he’s 267, but you always saw this extraordinary athlete — big frame, long … and a potentially broad-shouldered guy.”

It’s that athleticism that makes Ealy unique, especially with an eye toward his NFL future.

Not only can Ealy get after the quarterback, but he’s also a hard-nosed run defender on the edge. Look no further than his 7 1/2 sacks, 14 quarterback hurries and 37 tackles, including 12 1/2 tackles for a loss, for proof.

Ealy — who is officially listed at 6 feet, 5 inches and 275 pounds — has enough speed to drop in coverage blended with enough bulk to move inside on the next down.

“You’ve got to be able to speed by guys on the outside and, on the inside, you’ve got to be able to run them over and make them miss,” Missouri defensive-line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “Good players can do that, and Kony’s had a real good year for us doing that. His sack total might have been higher if we had left him outside, but the whole team has benefited from doing this.”

Being a versatile player, tough against both the run and the pass, is a point of pride for Ealy.

“I’m just not limited to my game,” he said. “I try to play an all-around game. If they need me to go play linebacker, that’s what I’ll do.”

About the only defensive position Ealy doesn’t think he’d flourish at is cornerback, though he did return an interception 49 yards for a touchdown against Indiana earlier this season.

“I’m not like (senior cornerback) E.J. (Gaines),” Ealy said. “I can’t run a 4.4 (40-yard dash) and I can’t cover the deep third.”

That’s about all Ealy can’t do.

“He’s able to change direction and move, which is very unusual for guys that big to be able to do those kinds of things,” Pinkel said. “We’ve been fortunate to have a few of them around here, but he’s also developed a very good work ethic and become a very good practice player.”

More than anything, Ealy’s maturity is perhaps the biggest difference between his sophomore and junior seasons, when Ealy recorded 4 1/2 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss combined.

“He’s really become a team player,” junior right tackle Mitch Morse said. “Not to say that he wasn’t before, but the guy really cares about his team and he’s the kind of guy who comes up in the locker room if stuff’s looking grim to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got each other’s backs.’ ”

That wasn’t always the case.

“Kony’s kind of crazy,” junior defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “He lives in his own world. He does his own thing and doesn’t really care what you’ve got to say about it. ... We’ve learned to work together over time and he’s matured a lot. When you come in with somebody like that and see them grow up, it’s a really cool thing to see.”

During his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons, he had a reputation as a stats-obsessed player who freelanced too much.

“My first couple years here, I was just running like a chicken with his head cut off,” Ealy said. “Now, I’m actually listening to coach Kul and taking in everything that he’s brought to the table as far as my production. … I’ve kind of matured into a leader of the team and just going out there trying to take on every little point that comes to me.”

That effort and growth hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“He’s in better control of his emotions, he’s a harder worker, he’s more dedicated, so this season he’s really been a very good teammate and beneficial to our team,” Kuligowski said.

Many draft analysts project Ealy as a first-round pick, so if he opted to leave Missouri early, there’s a good chance the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State on Jan. 3 will be his final college game.

“I’ll make that decision after the last game,” he said. “Right now, I’m focused on our last game against Okie State.”