When NFL scouts visited Missouri last year, they were awed by the Tigers’ defensive ends, but not necessarily the two that wound up being drafted last May.
“I had some NFL scouts come in and say, ‘Those two guys (Kony Ealy and Michael Sam) are pretty good, but the two behind them (Markus Golden and Shane Ray) — shoot, they might be better,’” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said during Monday’s weekly news conference. “Don’t tell Kony and Michael I said that. I’ll get a text or two tonight probably. But (Golden and Ray) are explosive guys, man. They come off the corner and create a lot of problems.”
Golden, now a senior, put up monster numbers last season.
Despite playing roughly 40 percent of the Tigers’ snaps, he led all Tigers defensive linemen with 55 tackles, including 13 for a loss with a 6 1/2 sacks and eight quarterback hurries.
Ray, now a junior, was pretty good too, finishing with 39 tackles, including nine for a loss with 4 1/2 sacks and 11 hurries.
The question for Golden and Ray entering 2014 was how that production would translate to increased reps as the starters. Such worries appear unfounded.
Golden is second on Missouri with 16 tackles through two games, including a team-best five tackles for a loss and 2 1/2 sacks.
Meanwhile, Ray leads the Tigers with three sacks to go with 3 1/2 tackles for a loss and nine total tackles.
It’s early, of course, but projected over a 13-game season, assuming Missouri qualifies for a bowl, Golden and Ray are on pace to combine for more than 160 tackles, 35 sacks and 55 tackles for a loss.
As incredible as those numbers are, Missouri’s staff isn’t surprised.
“No,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said, “they’re about where I expected.”
Pinkel credits relentless effortfor the production Ray and Golden have amassed.
“They’re impact players and they have great motors and they play hard,” Pinkel said. “We’re just fortunate to lose the two we lost a year ago and all the sudden have two guys of that magnitude.”
Missouri’s depth obviously took a hit. Redshirt freshmen Charles Harris and Marcus Loud along with sophomore Ricky Hatley have yet to flash the same potential Golden and Ray did as backups last season.
The result is that Missouri plans to lean on its starting defensive ends more throughout the season.
“They’ll get more reps probably,” Kuligowski said. “Last year, by the end of the year, we were getting pretty close to 50-50. I don’t think we’ll do that yet, but we’ll see.”
It’s hard to take Golden and Ray off the field as well as they are playing.
Golden has popped up all over the place — in the backfield, on the perimeter and even chasing ball carriers 40 yards down field.
“As the year went along last year, it was like, ‘Man, this guy’s really making some plays for our team,’ so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s still doing it,” Kuligowski said. “He’s going to have to be a dominant force for our defense to succeed.”
Of course, opposing offenses already have started working to neutralize Golden. Toledo brought running backs to chip him in the second half, but the Tigers don’t mind.
“You’d think they’d start double-teaming Golden a whole lot more than they are, but then, if they do that, you know what’s going to happen on the other side of the ball,” Hoch said. “Shane Ray is going to pick up and start getting more sacks.”
There may not be a right answer for opposing offenses, but Golden has advice for Central Florida’s Justin Holman or any other quarterback Missouri plays.
“I’d probably just get down, if I was a quarterback, and just get on down and let me touch you and give me the sack,” Golden said.