COLUMBIA — He is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, weighs 250 pounds and has a full beard. He is poised, well-spoken and has a confident posture.
Only the wide smile and crinkled eyes, which give him an innocence that looks out of place with his hulking body, tell the truth: Brad Madison is only a sophomore.
In just his second year of play for the Missouri football team, Madison has moved into a starting defensive end’s role during Aldon Smith’s absence. He’s started three of the team’s six games and has become a standout. When Smith returns, Madison will remain a strong presence for this new Missouri defense, which has become known for its intense work ethic and teamwork.
When Madison arrived at Missouri in 2008, he was slated to play on the offensive line. But after Missouri coach Gary Pinkel saw Madison’s speed and movement at practices, he had an idea — the same idea that had occurred to Madison. Both thought that Madison might have more success as a defensive end, and he successfully made the transition to the defensive line after his redshirt season.
“Now, I’m going to suggest to you that very few times do you recruit players at offensive line and move them to defensive end and they’re still players,” Pinkel said.
With Smith injured, Madison’s move has proven even more crucial. The once-criticized Missouri defense has evolved into perhaps the team’s greatest strength, and its depth has been instrumental in its success.
“They play real well as a unit,” Pinkel said. “It’s nice that you can lose a player of that magnitude and have guys show up and play at a high level themselves.”
Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said that Madison and the other young players on the defense have definitely filled the void left by Smith, and his absence has only intensified their willingness to learn and improve.
“These kids are like a sponge, and they’re just trying to absorb everything we’re trying to do,” Steckel said.
With Smith’s return looming, the young players and where they fit into the team’s depth has been on the forefront of Pinkel’s mind. In Smith’s absence, Madison, Jacquies Smith, and Michael Sam have proven their skills to coaches, but when Smith returns, Steckel and Pinkel will obviously have to adjust their lineup.
Pinkel said there’s no such thing as too much depth at defensive end. Although Smith has earned the right to reclaim his starting role when he returns, whether it’s this week or later in the season, Madison has earned more playing time, which has been a huge adjustment.
“I didn’t know what it was like to completely go out and play a full game,” Madison said. “That’s something I’m still trying to adjust to … You know you’re going to learn every week, and every game you’re going to gain more experience.”
With three sacks in the game against Texas A&M, Madison cemented his reputation with coaches, not only as a part of a strong defensive core, but also as an individual talent. He is tied for the fourth-most sacks of any player in the Big 12 with six, and he has made seven tackles for a loss of 45 total yards.
“You’ve got to prove to the coaches that you’re the guy who they can trust to go out and play,” Madison said. “I think I’ve done that so far.”
Madison said he’s eager for Smith to return, though it will definitely diminish his playing time. That doesn’t matter, though. All that Madison said he cares about is that the defense comes out every week and dominates, and having Smith back can only help.
“We’ve been playing well together as a defense, I think," he said. "And we’ve just got to keep doing that week to week.”
Although Madison is much more eager to talk about the strength of the defense as a whole, he can’t ignore the numbers. Fellow defensive end Jacquies Smith said that as much as the defense is playing well as a unit, Madison is standing out and “playing huge.”