COLUMBIA — It used to be easy for Kony Ealy.
As a 6-foot-5, 230-pound all-state basketball player at New Madrid County Central High School, Ealy could sky above the rim, making dunks and blocked shots routine for the power forward.
Now, he's a redshirt junior playing football for Missouri. He's gained more than 40 pounds, and jumping isn't quite as effortless as it once was. As a defensive end, leaving the ground is in the back of his mind. He has to worry about hand position, leverage and finding a way to get to the quarterback.
He's measured by his strength. His hulking 275-pound frame is the first thing people notice. Ealy is doing his job if he gets into the backfield, sacks the quarterback or records tackles for loss.
But flash back to fall camp in the August heat, and you can find Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski running Ealy and other defensive ends through a drill that teaches a different skill. Ealy smashes the blocking pad with the same intensity as always, but just seconds after the thud, he takes a step back. The ball is coming, and it's his job to knock it down.
In that moment, Ealy transforms into the high school star that drew attention from colleges for his talent on the basketball court. He leaps into the air, though not quite as smoothly as he once did on the hardwood, and swats the football out of the air, utilizing a wingspan that stretches toward the sky and hands that have dimensions resembling frying pans.
That's not the skill everyone thinks of when they see Ealy, but it was impossible to miss in Missouri's 45-28 win over Indiana on Saturday night. Just like he had countless times in Kuligowski's drill, Ealy rocketed off the turf. But instead of batting down the ball, Ealy plucked it from the night sky. Once the ball was in his grasp, Ealy got a rare chance to show off his athleticism with everyone watching, and he scampered 49 yards to the end zone.
"Everybody talks about the skill players," Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. "Think of O- and D-linemen. When you're a little kid, how many guys raise their hand and say, 'I want to be the D-end,' or 'I want to be the tackle'? They want to be the skill guys."
People are awestruck by how fast Dorial Green-Beckham can run the 40-yard dash, and Henry Josey makes the highlight reel for every big run. But what Ealy does with his body, at 275 pounds, might be even more impressive.
"It takes more skill to be able to put your paw in the ground, rush the quarterback," Steckel said. "You're worried about the guy in front of you and rushing the quarterback. And oh, hell, here comes the ball — you have to put your hand up and bat the ball down. That takes a lot of skill. I think it's a trait he came here with and a skill that continues to develop with all of his individual drills."
To Ealy, it's simple. He doesn't think about how most 275-pound human beings can't move like he does. When he's making a play like the one he made against Indiana, he feels like the lighter version of himself that was dominating the low post in high school.
"It's something I've always had," Ealy said. "It helps my game all the way around. Yeah, I was 40 pounds lighter, but it's kind of the same thing. Just jumping up and getting your hands on the ball."
Ealy makes it sound simple, but it's quite the sight to see one of the largest people on the field fly into the air and leave the skill players in the dust. Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers marvels at what his teammate is able to do. Brothers first got to know Ealy on the basketball court, and with each year they've spent together, Ealy has gotten bigger, stronger and, somehow, more athletic.
"Kony is just a phenomenal athlete," Brothers said. "When I first came here, I first got to spend time with him on the basketball court. His athleticism was just out of this world. When I saw him get his hand on the ball and take it to the house, I was like, 'Oh, here we go again.' "
Missouri is starting to get used to these extraordinary plays from its defensive linemen. Ealy's interception and subsequent touchdown was reminiscent of Markus Golden's touchdown in Week 2 against Toledo. Both earned Defensive Lineman of the Week honors from the Southeastern Conference after returning their interceptions for touchdowns.
After Golden received the honor in Week 2, he started getting on Ealy's case about winning the award.
"I got me one," Ealy said. "He's a motivator. Going to get a couple more."
Defensive linemen don't find the end zone every week, and they don't get interceptions every week. It takes being in the right place at the right time and a special kind of athleticism, which Ealy has always possessed.
But maybe, Ealy admitted, Kuligowski's annoying drill, which Ealy has done hundreds of times since arriving at Missouri, had something to do with his ability to hang onto the ball once it hit his oversized hands.
"As tired as we are and as much as we hate doing individual drills, it paid off," Ealy said. "My hat goes off to the coaches."