Defensive line has been one of Missouri’s biggest strengths during the last decade.
Under the tutelage of defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, the Tigers have become a factory for top-end pass-rushing talent.
That reputation will be tested in 2015 given Missouri’s lack of experience and, after Harold Brantley was lost for the season in a Father’s Day car wreck, lack of depth.
“They should be better right now than they were last year and, by the time we get to the season, they better be better than they are today,” Kuligowski said in April. “At the end of spring ball, these guys should be better. That’s our job, to get these guys better every day and they’ve got to come out here with the attitude to get better every day. They’ve been very good about that.”
The Tigers lost two stud defensive ends from last season’s squad in first-round NFL Draft pick and single-season sack leader Shane Ray, who left for the pros with a year of eligibility remaining, and second-round pick Markus Golden.
Underappreciated defensive tackles Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch graduated, leaving a massive void across the entire defensive front four.
Big things are expected from sophomore Charles Harris, who started one game when Golden was injured last season, and hulking defensive tackle Josh Augusta, who has appeared in 28 games but lacks the stamina to be an every-down player. But that’s it as far as experience up front.
Losing Brantley and defensive end Marcus Loud, who was pegged as Ray’s replacement at right defensive end before his dismissal in May for violating team rules, further deplete the Tigers.
That puts added pressure on a bevy of young players — led by redshirt freshman Walter Brady, who is working the first-team defense at the right end spot — to make an impact.
“He’s been doing really well, honestly, for a young player,” coach Gary Pinkel said of Brady. “He’s kind of standing out. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s got great intensity. It’s kind of neat to see the young guys do the things you need to do to get yourself ready to play.”
Sophomore tackle A.J. Logan and redshirt freshman ends Spencer Williams and Rocel McWilliams are working with the second-team at times, while junior Rickey Hatley, who has played sparingly the last two seasons, is penciled in as the starter at nose guard.
At least, Hatley might be poised for a breakout season after a strong spring.
“He’s put on some good weight, so I’m pretty proud of that kid,” Kuligowski said. “Ricky’s about 300 pounds right now.”
He’s also redoubled his work ethic at practice to earn a starting spot.
“I just work hard every rep,” Hatley said. “Every rep I go out there and just show Coach Kool that I deserve to be out here too.”
MISSOURI ROSTER: DEFENSIVE LINE
Returning players: Spencer Williams (6-3, 245, fr.), Eddie Serrano (6-3, 235, so.), Tyler Hanneke (6-4, 250, jr.) Walter Brady (6-3, 255, fr.), Harold Brantley (6-3, 280, jr.), Charles Harris (6-3, 255, so.), Justin Grava (6-3, 260, jr.), Rickey Hatley (6-4, 285, jr.), A.J. Logan (6-2, 300, so.), Josh Augusta (6-4, 345, jr.), Rocel McWilliams (6-2, 240, fr.)
Incoming players: Marcell Frazier (6-5, 265, jr.), Josh Moore (6-5, 260, fr.), Terry Beckner Jr. (6-4, 300, fr.), Nate Howard (6-4, 235, fr.), Tyrell Jacobs (6-4, 265, fr.)
Projected starter: DE Harris, DT Augusta, NG Rickey Hatley, DE Brady
Analysis: Missouri lacks depth and experience up front. The good news is that there’s some bulk in the middle with Augusta, Hatley, Logan and others that should help the Tigers be stout up the middle against the run. That’s a good place to start, especially with running backs like Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Arkansas’ Alex Collins on the schedule.
MU’s staff is incredibly high on Harris and his potential to emerge as one of the best defensive ends in the Southeastern Conference. If Brady or whoever winds up starting opposite Harris, struggles to get after the quarterback, there are more creative ways to mask that deficiency through linebacker or defensive back blitzes.
Depth is a concern. Grava is the current backup to Brady, while a pair of redshirt freshmen — Williams and McWilliams — are listed behind Harris. Logan has good size, but he’s only a sophomore behind Augusta. Finally, Hanneke starts fall camp as Hatley’s backup.
Pinkel and his staff have to hope Frazier, a junior-college transfer, hits the ground running and quickly cracks the rotation. It will be interesting to see how quickly true freshmen — Terry Beckner Jr., Nate Howard, Tyrell Jacobs and Josh Moore — develop and if any of them can make a legitimate impact in 2015.