The first meaningful defensive snaps of Nick Bolton’s college career came on primetime television at a historic stadium against the No. 1 team in the country. It was as if an actor jumped straight from high school theater to Broadway.
When Bolton ran onto the field on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium, he heard shouts from the crowd of 101,000. He felt jitters, and all he wanted was to do his job.
“It’s electric out there,” Bolton said after Missouri’s 39-10 loss to Alabama. “It’s hard to hear sometimes. It’s one of the best college football venues in the nation. It doesn’t really get much better than that.”
Unfortunately for the Tigers, Bolton’s playing time came at the expense of a teammate: senior linebacker Terez Hall, a team captain.
With Missouri down three points early in the second quarter, Hall rammed into Alabama’s Damien Harris with his helmet, bringing the running back to the ground for no gain. Alabama was set to face a third-and-5, but the officials halted action to review the play. Moments later, Hall marched off the field, ejected for targeting.
“When you’ve already gotten in a position to make a tackle and the ball carrier does it after you’ve already gotten into position, it’s really hard to be able to get in a position where it’s not a targeting,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “And unfortunately it was buzzed down from upstairs, and it was targeting. He got him with the front of his helmet right on the ear hole.”
The ejection forced Odom to put Bolton in the game. The freshman finished with eight tackles, and his coach said he played assignment-football. When Odom reviewed plays to see who made errors, Bolton’s name rarely came up.
Alabama pulled away shortly after Hall left the game. The Tide scored a touchdown three plays after the starter’s departure, and Missouri never pulled within 10 points again.
Before the Tigers’ trip to Alabama, Hall consistently played entire games for Missouri. He was on the field for nearly 90 percent of the Tigers’ defensive plays against South Carolina, only exiting when the team employed a dime package and brought in extra defensive backs.
For Bolton, it was bittersweet entering the game while Hall had to sit.
“Terez has been like a big brother to me, a mentor,” Bolton said. “Ultimately he’s trying to go to the league, so I’m trying to be his No. 1 fan. I’m going to be a great teammate. When my (name) is called, I’m just trying to do the best I can do.”
The starter’s absence left a void, and Missouri called on Bolton, who only played special teams last week, to fill it.
“Our initial reaction is, ‘Shoot, Terez is out,’” linebacker Cale Garrett said. “But it’s nice to have confidence in a guy like Bolton who can step in an play well.”
Bolton said he acted a little too jumpy when he first entered the game. Hall talked to his backup at halftime and told the freshman to let plays develop a bit more before jumping in.
Coaches raved about Bolton in fall camp, and he showed flashes of promise against Alabama. He pressured quarterback Tua Tagovailoa shortly after entering the game and did not miss badly on any tackles, though he occasionally failed to trip up Alabama rushers.
“I think he has a really bright future,” Garrett said. “I think that’s something that could have been inferred all the way back to fall camp, just how quickly he was able to pick up our defense. … He might already be one of the smartest guys in the room, having the defense down.”
Overall, the Tigers gave up 184 rushing yards to Alabama, slightly less than the Tide’s season average entering the game (222).
Midway through the second quarter, Bolton and Garrett teamed up to keep Harris to a 1-yard game on a first-and-goal play. The Tide later had to settle for a field goal. Bolton also kept Harris to a 2-yard game in the fourth quarter.
With Hall back next week, Bolton will likely return to a special-teams role. He now has 20 tackles on the year and has appeared in every game.
“He’s a guy that has worked so well over practice since he’s been here,” Odom said of Bolton. “He’s got an opportunity to be a really good player. Unfortunately we didn’t anticipate him playing that many snaps tonight, but that’s life.”