COLUMBIA — Stryker Sulak doesn’t stand a chance. The competition is going to pound the shy redshirt freshman from Rockdale, Texas, into Pixie dust. The kid hasn’t spoken more than two words all season, so how is he going to crouch in that three-point stance, grip the turf and stare eye-to-eye with egos that could rip his confidence, rattle his psyche and devour him alive?
Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski had more than a few doubts during Sulak’s redshirt freshman season in 2004. He braced himself for the worst. He figured Sulak would crack before becoming whole.
“I thought, ‘These guys are going to tear him to pieces,’” Kuligowski said. “They’re going to ride him so hard.’”
Almost four years later, Kuligowski is biting his bottom lip. The joke is on the rest of Sulak’s doubters, too. Once a quiet, reserved redshirt freshman, Sulak has matured into the talkative, outgoing mouthpiece of the Missouri defensive line. The senior end has 25 career starts, the most of any in a unit that includes three seniors (Sulak, Tommy Chavis and Jaysen Corbett). Over his career, Sulak has added 25 pounds to his frame, and last season, he recorded 60 tackles and six quarterback sacks.
Now, the same coaches who once doubted him demand more. They have visions of him tearing through offensive lines toward all-Big 12 Conference honors.
From a reserved redshirt freshman to a potential senior standout, Sulak knows he has come far.
“It bothered me a lot,” Sulak said of his redshirt year. “I look back on that year, and I never want to do that again.”
Sulak’s personality started to bloom during his first start in 2005. Missouri hosted Iowa State midway through the season. On the game’s first snap, Sulak burst past the offensive tackle, wrapped his biceps around quarterback Bret Meyer and tossed the Cyclones star to the turf – all before the butterflies could flutter from Sulak’s stomach. The crowd roared. Coaches rubbed their eyes in disbelief.
“We’re like, ‘Holy crap,’” Kuligowski said of the coaching staff’s reaction. “Where did this guy come from?’”
Since, Sulak has exuded confidence, pushed others to match his intensity. He knows 2008 could be special. Earlier this winter, coaches addressed players about leadership. A few moments later, Sulak stood up and spilled emotion, the shell that once surrounded the shy redshirt freshman long gone.
“When I first got here, we didn’t have the leadership that we had last year,” Kuligowski remembers Sulak saying. “I’m sorry, but (the leadership in 2004) wasn’t the right way. This is the right way.”
Sulak is trying to keep the right way alive. He yells at lackadaisical teammates during practice. He taunts equipment managers if drill materials aren’t set up fast enough. He’s a senior now, and he knows it’s his time.
It’s not all serious, though. He quotes dialogue from “The Office” with teammates. He wags his tongue between workouts. His one-liners have become infamous.
“I don’t think you can put those in the paper,” sophomore end Zach Milligan said, smiling.
Said Sulak: “Hopefully, what I’m trying to accomplish is having some of the guys look at me and see that you can be enthusiastic, that you can have fun.”
For him, the fun may have only begun. He hopes to build enough muscle to make it to a sleeker, faster 250 pounds. He says he has recovered from a minor offseason knee surgery that repaired damaged cartilage. If he has a solid 2008, who knows what his NFL possibilities will hold.
Whatever his future, the doubt surrounding his mind-set has been dashed.
Almost four years later, his shell has been shed.
“This is my senior year, so I’ve got to try to get those younger guys to look up to me,” Sulak said. “Basically, I know I have to make this year count. I’ve got to work hard, and I think the only way to work hard is to be enthusiastic.”