Since Nick Bolton arrived on Missouri’s campus in 2018, he’s drawn rave reviews from coaches on his knowledge of the game and star potential.
In MU’s win over West Virginia on Saturday, it finally started to show.
Bolton had two interceptions, one that was returned for a touchdown, and two tackles-for-loss in MU’s 38-7 blowout win, which earned him SEC defensive player of the week honors and a spot on Pro Football Focus’ national team of the week. According to the College Football Reference Play Index, no MU player has had a stat line comparable to Bolton’s since the index began in 2000.
“He grew up today,” MU cornerback DeMarkus Acy said of Bolton.
Bolton took over for Terez Hall at weakside linebacker in the spring and made his first career start at Wyoming after playing as a reserve in 2018. While Bolton wasn’t the entire reason MU’s defense struggled against the Cowboys, his performance wasn’t his best. Bolton struggled to diagnose plays quickly and got confused at other points in a game in which MU allowed almost 300 yards rushing.
“I just think there were some plays we would have liked to have back,” said Vernon Hargreaves, MU’s linebackers coach, on the difference between the Wyoming game and last Saturday. “I think he was the same guy. It wasn’t that hard. The matchups and everything here were better, he just pulled the trigger and played.”
Missouri coach Barry Odom admitted that he was disappointed in Bolton’s play at Wyoming because he had seen so much more from him in practice.
Against West Virginia, Bolton’s first interception came on a tipped pass with 5:33 left in the first quarter and set up MU for the first of Kelly Bryant’s two touchdowns to Albert Okwuegbunam. Odom applauded defensive coordinator Ryan Walters for Bolton’s first pick, saying that Walters anticipated the play call before the snap and put Bolton in the best position to get it.
On Bolton’s second interception, his assignment was to read backup quarterback Jack Allison, who had just come in to relieve Austin Kendall. Bolton snagged Allison’s first pass and returned it 20 yards for a touchdown.
“The second one was a much clearer picture,” Bolton said. “Right to me.”
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, former MU and current Falcons linebacker Sean Weatherspoon was watching the game and fired out a tweet to Bolton after his second interception. Bolton has drawn comparisons to both Weatherspoon and Kentrell Brothers, standout MU linebackers that, like Bolton, aren’t much taller than 6-foot.
“Now I know your name,” Weatherspoon tweeted.
Bolton’s second pick displayed the football IQ that Odom’s staff has been raving out since he stepped on campus. In MU’s 2018 preseason camp, Walters raved about Bolton’s ability to make the same reads and line calls that Cale Garrett and Hall could.
Playing high school football at Lone Star High School in Frisco, Texas, Bolton used to help the coaching staff plan for opponents. When Hargreaves first visited him on a recruiting visit, he said Bolton, who had just backed off his commitment to Washington, could already explain MU’s defensive scheme.
“It was pretty apparent he understood what we were doing,” Hargreaves said. “He was doing very similar stuff in high school. He could almost talk the language immediately.”
Hargreaves said he’s used Bolton as an example to his younger linebackers, who are currently pushing for playing time in light of Aubrey Miller’s knee injury. Bolton started making plays as a freshman in practice, which led to him skipping a redshirt year.
Walters said Bolton’s ability to quickly rebound from a tough first week backs up what the staff has been saying. But after two vastly different performances by MU’s defense two weeks into the season, it has to continue.
When asked about Bolton at his weekly news conference, Odom said the sophomore still has more to show.
“I think Nick is just starting to scratch the surface of the player he’s going to be for us,” he said.