COLUMBIA — Of Missouri’s two starting interior defensive linemen, one has really stood out.
He has garnered both applause and criticism this season, dominating on the field and entertaining in interviews. He tagged Georgia’s style of play as “old man football,” quickly eating his words after Missouri went on to lose at home.
He has continued to climb up NFL draft boards, collapsing offensive lines, stripping away fumbles and leading the defense in tackles week after week.
On the field and in the press conference afterward, the spotlight has been on him.
That guy, the one everybody’s been talking about, is not Matt Hoch.
While defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson has excelled throughout his senior season, Hoch has quietly begun producing results over the past few games. A redshirt sophomore who initially came to Missouri as a tight end, Hoch picked up a sack in Missouri’s win over Kentucky. He followed up that effort by knocking down two passes and gathering four total tackles in Saturday’s loss to Florida.
Hoch isn’t trying to be Richardson. His game isn’t as flashy, and his interview requests are few. He didn’t even attend Missouri’s weekly media day Monday.
But according to Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Hoch doesn’t have to emulate Richardson’s style of play. He’s effective in his own way.
“The last couple games he’s been a different player. This is his first year playing inside like that with the amount that he’s playing,” Pinkel said Monday. “Him and Sheldon are different type players, and he’s a little bit more like (former Missouri defensive tackle and current Pittsburgh Steelers player) Ziggy (Hood) – just a bigger, more physical guy.”
At 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, Hoch is both taller and heavier than Richardson. And while Richardson uses his speed and athleticism to break into the backfield and harass the quarterback, Hoch relies on his leverage to fill running lanes.
That size, though, also has its disadvantages.
“We call him Megatron, because he’s so big and he’s stiff as hell,” defensive end Kony Ealy said, smiling wide. “But, I mean, he blows up plays and gets in the way of quarterbacks and running backs. He’s always in the way.”
For Hoch, the success he’s starting to enjoy didn’t come naturally. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said Hoch is a noticeably better player now than he was in fall camp. He’s more confident and more disciplined.
That improvement was spurred, at least partially, by Kuligowski’s words of encouragement. Very loud, very enthusiastic encouragement.
“Every player that I’ve ever coached has had a kick in the rear at some point,” Kuligowski said. “I’m sure somewhere along the line there was some strong encouragement.”
Whatever it was – the added experience, the SEC competition across the line or the strong encouragement from his coach – Hoch is beginning to make a name for himself. With Richardson lining up beside him, he’s no longer “the other guy.”
“Matt’s an awesome player, man,” Ealy said. “Especially in these last two games, he’s been showing something that I haven’t seen in him since two-a-days. He’s moving well for his size, and he’s strong.
Still, while Hoch’s frame and style doesn’t compare to Richardson’s, that doesn’t mean he isn’t learning from the senior’s exemplary work ethic.
“Sheldon does that for everybody,” Kuligowski said. “He’s a great example with how hard he goes on the field, and guys say, ‘I can do that. I want to do that.’ So I think he’s a very good example for Matt.”
If the past two games are any indication, Hoch will continue to improve on the interior defensive line. He’ll continue to fill gaps, corralling running backs and batting down stray passes.
He’ll pick up another crucial sack, just as he did against Kentucky.
He’ll be “Megatron” – big and stiff, but always in the way.
And if all that happens, Richardson might become “the other guy,” if only for a game.
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.