Coincidentally, those two teams met up in Atlanta for the 2013 SEC Championship Game. No one, not even the most die-hard Tiger fan on both ends of the spectrum could have envisioned that when the sun rose on the 2013 season in late August. But after two magical runs in their respective divisions, this tandem of Tigers waged in a shootout that the Okay Corral would have been jealous of.
It's true that Mizzou as greatly benefited from a terrifying three-headed monster at the wide receiver position. Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington, and Dorial Green-Beckham made life miserable for opposing secondaries. The quarterbacking duo of James Franklin and Maty Mauk performed marvelously, and its stable of running backs, led by fan favorite Henry Josey, torched the gridiron with each streaking stride they made.
But what was most feared by oppositions was the Tiger defense. It was a defense that did exactly what they were asked to do: wreak havoc, force turnovers (at a startling rate), and keep points to a minimum. Of course, that very defense is best remembered for its grotesque performance in that SEC Title Game, but the previous 12 games is where they made their mark. After all, if not for those great performances, would Missouri have landed where they wound up? It's hard to imagine.
Where Mizzou made their biggest impact was on the edge. A quartet of edge players were terrific all season, so much so that one of them wound up being the conference's player of the year and a 1st Team All-American. That man, of course, is the well-known Michael Sam. The other starting edge player was Kony Ealy, whose versatility sprung him to new heights. This dastardly duo nearly combined for 20 sacks in 2013 and the two fed off one another, no doubt about it.
But waiting in the wings was a combination of edge players that can do some damage as well. Today, as the "Next Man Up" series kicks off, we'll be profiling those two players as the likes of Shane Ray and Markus Golden step into the spotlight.
What They'll Be Replacing
As we've already mentioned, Sam and Ealy were a punishing pair. In case you've forogtten, here's a look at what they did during the 2013 season.
|Michael Sam||14||11.5||48 (19 TFL)||2|
|Kony Ealy||14||8.0||42 (14 TFL)||3|
At first glance, those are startling numbers. It's hard enough to get one edge player to get double digit sacks, especially in a conference that prides itself for being hard-nosed in the trenches. I believe they call it "Grown Man Football," right Missouri fans? So not only did Mizzou get incredible production from Sam, they got great production from Ealy as well who came two sacks shy of eclipsing double-digit sacks, too.
There are some that say that their sacks came against weak production, that they fed off of weaker teams, etc., but the numbers, to me, are as legitimate as they come. Without the SEC's 2014 Defensive Player of the Year, I don't think Mizzou comes anywhere close to being where they were a year ago, and the same goes for Kony Ealy as well. As a tandem, they fed off of one another, and the pressure they created helped just about everyone else on that defensive unit.
What They Bring to the Table
While Sam and Ealy were clearly the stars of the team, let's not forget that Ray and Golden got their fair share of licks at opposing quarterbacks a year ago. Playing primarily as rotational defensive ends, they got limited snaps in 2013. But, they still made a more-than-measurable impact. And the numbers back that up.
|Markus Golden||14||6.5||55 (13 TFL)||1|
|Shane Ray||14||4.5||39 (9 TFL)||2|
Take a look at the sack numbers from them. Playing in sub-packages and with the fellow members of the second unit, Markus Golden and Shane Ray combined for 11 sacks. If you go back to the numbers that Sam and Ealy got, that's a sum of 30.5 sacks from the Mizzou defensive ends in the 2013 season. That's incredible production, especially when you consider the fact that almost 1/3rd of it came from players who were not even starters.
Both Ray and Golden bring tremendous skill sets to the table. Golden has spectacular burst off the line of scrimmage and could very well assert himself as the best pass rusher in the entire conference if he plays up to his potential. Yes, that's right. A year after having a hold of the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Mizzou could very well boast another strong contender for that award.
Ray meanwhile is a very athletic defensive end -- arguably more so than some of his predecessors. His most memorable moment of last season was his scamper to the end zone in the Cotton Bowl to put away the Oklahoma State Cowboys. That was, of course, set up by Michael Sam's strip sack of quarterback Clint Chelf.
Simply put, these two may be as terrifying a duo as Sam and Ealy were, if not more.
What We Can Expect
Let's be clear here first. It's hard to imagine that the Missouri Tigers keep the absurd turnover rate that they had going for them last year, this year. Additionally, while Ray and Golden may get more snaps, that may not necessarily translate into even more production. They may still wreak havoc, and that presents more quality than sack numbers, but that may very well be the talk of the town this season in Columbia.
With that said however, it's certainly hard to argue that this combo won't produce. They have just as much talent, if not more than, as their predecessors and under defensive coordinator Dave Steckel they should have no problem growing and improving as pass rushers.
Watch out, SEC, because the Missouri Tigers may have another deadly defensive duo on their hands.