Campus Corner

Missouri camp countdown: 15 best defensive players of the Gary Pinkel era

Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon terrorizing Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud during a game in 2009.
Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon terrorizing Iowa State quarterback Austen Arnaud during a game in 2009. skeyser@kcsar.com

Gary Pinkel is an offensive-minded coach, but he’s also fielded some pretty stout defenses during his Missouri tenure.

In fact, more than half of the Tigers drafted on Pinkel’s watch — 17 of 32 — were defensive players, including five of the seven first-round picks and eight of the 12 players taken in the first two rounds.

We know who we think is the best of the bunch, but we’re counting down the top 15 in tribute to the start of Pinkel’s 15th season at MU.

If you missed previous posts on the Pinkel era’s biggest wins, toughest losses or best offensive players, go check them out. The final installment Friday will countdown some defining moments, good and bad, under the Tigers’ coach with the most wins.

PINKEL ERA’S 15 BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYERS

15. LB Andrew Gachkar (2007-10)

An underrated player, who appeared in 54 career games with the Tigers, Gachkar averaged 82 tackles as a junior and senior with 13 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions and seven passes defended. Signed with the Cowboys during the offseason.

14. DE Xzavie Jackson (2003-06)

A dynamic defensive playmaker, Jackson’s eight sacks as a senior are tied for 10th most in a single season in program history. His 16 1/2 career sacks rank 12th, tied with Markus Golden, while his 35 1/2 tackles for a loss are the ninth-most in MU’s annals.

13. LB James Kinney (2001-04)

Kinney is Missouri’s all-time leader with 434 career tackles, including a record 256 solo tackles. Kinney had 148 tackles as a sophomore and 147 as a junior, which are the fourth and fifth most in a single season in Tigers history.

12. DT Lorenzo Williams (2004-07)

Chosen first-team All-Big 12 in 2007, Williams ranks fifth in career sacks with 19, tied with Shane Ray. He was a disruptive force in the middle of the defensive line on Missouri’s best team in 2007, which briefly earned a No. 1 ranking in the BCS standings.

11. DE Kony Ealy (2011-13)

Ealy, a second-round pick by the Carolina Panthers after leaving MU following his junior season, was a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer in 2013. He was adept against the run and getting after the quarterback with uncommon athleticism, as his leaping interception and return for a touchdown against Indiana proved. Ealy’s 9 1/2 sacks in 2013 are eighth most in a season in program history and he finished with 14 career sacks.

10. DT Ziggy Hood (2005-08)

Became Pinkel’s inaugural first-round NFL Draft pick on defense in 2009, kicking off a run of seven first-round picks in the last seven drafts. Hood finished with an impressive 15 1/2 sacks from his interior line spot, which is tied for 15th in MU history. He had 108 tackles, including 15 for a loss, as a junior and senior.

9. DE Michael Sam (2010-13)

Sam was chosen as the SEC defensive player of the year in 2013 during Missouri’s breakout season — a 12-2 campaign that included the program’s first SEC East division title and a No. 5 final ranking. Sam tied the Tigers’ single-season record with 11 1/2 sacks as a senior, a record Shane Ray broke last season. He finished with 21 career sacks, which is fourth-most in MU history. His 19 tackles for a loss in 2013 and 36 in his career rank sixth and seventh, respectively.

8. DE Markus Golden (2012-14)

He was only a starter for one season, but Golden made a tremendous impact in his three years at Missouri. The Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College transfer became a captain as a senior, recording 10 sacks and 20 tackles for a loss on an 11-3 squad. The sacks were tied for sixth most in a single season and the tackles for a loss mark ranks fifth at MU. Golden finished his career with 16 1/2 sacks, which is tied for 12th most in Tigers history.

7. DE Brian Smith (2003-06)

Smith’s four sacks against New Mexico in 2006 are tied for the MU single-game record. He also owns the career record with 31 1/2 sacks. Smith, a two-time second-team All-Big 12 performer, totaled at least seven sacks in each of his four seasons with the Tigers.

6. DE Aldon Smith (2009-10)

Smith, a Raytown graduate, set Missouri’s single-season record with 11 1/2 sacks in 2009, a record eclipsed by Shane Ray last season. Smith’s mark remains tied for second and he was chosen first-team All-Big 12 in 2010. Leaving MU after his redshirt sophomore season, Smith was drafted No. 7 overall by the 49ers, the highest pick in the Pinkel era.

5. CB E.J. Gaines (2010-13)

Earned first-team All-SEC honors in 2013 with five interceptions as a senior. He set a Missouri record as a sophomore with 16 passes breakups and ranked fifth in the nation with 18 passes defended, including his two interceptions. Gaines, a Fort Osage graduate, recorded at least 69 tackles in each of his final three seasons and scored two career fumble-return touchdowns. A sixth-round pick by the Rams, Gaines is the highest-drafted MU cornerback since 1983.

4. S William Moore (2005-08)

Moore snagged a Missouri single-season record eight interceptions as a junior in 2007 and finished with 11 for his career, which is tied for fifth all-time. He ranks 18th with 284 career tackles, the second-most in Tigers history for a safety. Moore also owns the career record with four interceptions returned for touchdowns.

3. DT Sheldon Richardson (2011-12)

Missouri’s inaugural first-team All-SEC performer after a stellar season in 2012, Richardson is as dominant a force as the Tigers have had on the interior of its defensive line. He led all SEC linemen with 75 tackles as a junior before declaring for the NFL Draft and being selected No. 13 overall by the Jets. Richardson went on to win the NFL defensive rookie of the year.

2. DE Shane Ray (2012-14)

Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate, turned in one of the finest defensive seasons in Missouri history as a junior in 2014. He set the Tigers’ single-season record with 14 1/2 sacks and added 22 1/2 tackles for a loss, which ranks fourth in program history. Ray’s 19 career sacks are tied for the fifth-most in MU’s history. He was chosen as the SEC defensive player of the year before leaving early for the NFL Draft and becoming a first-round pick by the Broncos.

1. LB Sean Weatherspoon (2006-09)

A tackling machine, Weatherspoon graduated with the third-most tackles in Missouri history (413). His nation-leading 155 tackles as a junior rank second for the Tigers in a single season and his 130 tackles as a sophomore are tied for 12th. “Spoon” also had 18 1/2 tackles for a loss in 2008, which ranks ninth in MU history, and his 43 1/2 career tackles for a loss are second only to Justin Smith. Weatherspoon, who three interceptions and returned two for touchdowns as a junior, was a first-round pick by the Falcons.

Others considered: S Pig Brown, DE Stryker Sulak, DE Jacquies Smith, LB Andrew Wilson, S Jason Simpson, LB C.J. Mosley, DT Dominique Hamilton, LB Zaviar Gooden, LB Brock Christopher, LB Dedrick Harrington, S Braylon Webb, LB Sean Doyle, LB Brad Madison, DB Kip Edwards.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @todpalmer.

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