It would seem logical if Missouri’s defensive line felt immense pressure this spring.
During the last two seasons, the Tigers have lost back-to-back Southeastern Conference defensive players of the year in Michael Sam (2013) and Shane Ray (2014).
Former MU star Kony Ealy had a solid rookie season with the Carolina Panthers. Later this month, Markus Golden will join Ealy in the NFL.
Missouri also lost two long-tenured, productive defensive tackles with the graduations of Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch.
All told, those six players suited up for 271 games, including 127 starts, and racked up 684 tackles, 164 tackles for a loss, 84 1/2 sacks, 22 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries.
It’s a lot to replace, but the returning Tigers profess no worries.
“(There’s) no pressure, man,” said defensive tackle Ricky Hatley, who has bulked up to 300 pounds after totaling 11 tackles with a sack in limited action last season. “D-Line Zou just means go out there every time on the field with a savage mentality.”
The bar for defensive line play at Missouri has been set incredibly high and the legacy of D-Line Zou, a phrase coined by Golden last year, extends well beyond that two-year window.
But there’s confidence that the returning group — Hatley along with sophomore defensive ends Charles Harris and Marcus Loud, junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley and sophomore defensive tackle Josh Augusta — won’t miss a beat.
“D-Line Zou, that’s something … that was ingrained into us,” said Harris, a Lincoln Prep graduate. “That’s already out there. It’s just a matter of us living up to it. It’s not expectations placed on us by everyone else. It’s expectations that we have intrinsically from ourselves, that we expect to dominate as a defensive unit.”
Of course, that doesn’t mean Harris and company aren’t keenly aware there’s a legacy within that defensive line room to uphold.
“Pressure makes diamonds, but we don’t look at what (Golden), Shane, Kony and all those guys did and be like, ‘We’ve got to do this or got to do that,’” Harris said. “We’re like a lot of small pieces of individual great guys who will work together to get the job done. … You’re not going to talk about one person this year. You’re going to talk about us as a collective D-Line Zou.”
Loud agreed, but he allowed that a few players — starting with Brantley, who is regarded as the top returning lineman after totaling 54 tackles, including seven for a loss, with five sacks last season — are bound to make a name for themselves as their predecessors did.
“We try not to look at is as being Shane and Markus,” Loud said. “We’re Marcus and Charles. They had their own style. We have our own style. We’ve just got to understand together that we are next, but, at the same time, the tradition and legacy has got to continue. It’s not raising our standards to meet other people. … We’re coming to set our own (records). We want our own names.”
Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who won national awards for his work molding Missouri’s linemen into top-ranked NFL prospects in recent seasons, believes the pieces are in place for another strong season up front.
He praised the work ethic and progress made by the Tigers’ defensive linemen during the offseason, but Kuligowski also knows there’s a long journey still ahead.
“What happened last year is last year,” Kuligowski said. “None of us have proved (anything) for this year, so we’ve got stuff to prove — all of us, me included. … Right now, we’re just trying to get best D tackle and then, after that, we’ll see what happens. … We’ll take whatever ingredients we’ve got and make the best recipe we can.”