COLUMBIA — Missouri defensive end Michael Sam isn’t hard to notice.
When he’s on the practice field, running through individual drills, Sam serves as the team’s jukebox, belting out tunes from The Temptations as well as country music.
He’s known among his teammates on the defensive line for keeping the mood lighthearted and having an upbeat attitude. Some have gone as far as to call him the comedian of the team.
“Other than when he’s singing, yeah,” defensive end Kony Ealy said with a smile. “I enjoy some of his songs, others not so much.”
Sam’s vocal cords might not energize the entire team, but his play on the field has. In Missouri’s past two games, Sam has six sacks and has earned the Southeastern Conference Defensive Lineman of the Week Award twice in the process. Not bad for a player who was once an afterthought as a two-star recruit coming out of high school.
Sam wasn't available for interviews at Monday's media day and has only interviewed with team affiliates since the end of fall camp, letting his play do most of the talking.
“It is kind of interesting how kids mature and then all of a sudden change and go to a different level," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "He is playing at that different level right now.”
Now a fifth-year senior, Sam is finding different ways to get after the quarterback. Ealy couldn’t point to a specific move Sam uses, instead pointing out his attitude and speed off the edge as his best traits.
Sam isn’t the biggest player at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, but he uses that to his advantage. Instead of overpowering offensive linemen and tossing them around with a few swipes of his hand like Ealy, Sam finds ways to get around them.
His first step off the line of scrimmage is like a sprinter’s first step out of the blocks. He’s out of his stance and a half-step ahead of the offensive tackle in less than a second.
That’s when Sam dips his shoulder and begins to bend his body horizontally toward the turf, his eyes on the quarterback the whole time. If Sam maintains his balance around the edge, the quarterback knows he’s in trouble because Sam does not stop.
“I know he’s a warrior,” Ealy said. “He’s going to keep going and going and going. That’s what our coaches try to preach for us when we’re out there on the field.
“He’s taking his game to a new level. He’s kind of carrying the defense right now.”
Pass rushing isn’t a high-percentage craft. If Sam gets to the quarterback once out of every five times he drops back, that’s more than any defensive coordinator could ask for. That’s what makes Sam’s relentlessness so important.
Often, offensive tackles are able to slow him down before he’s able to turn the corner. Other times, quarterbacks will scramble for safety toward the sideline and away from Sam.
But as long as the quarterback is holding the ball, he’s not safe. Sam does not stop after his first, second or third attempts at the quarterback. He’s going to chase a player from one sideline to the other if it means a chance to hit somebody.
“I think he is doing so well because of his energy level,” Pinkel said. “He is playing at a different level than he has ever accomplished before. I could not be more pleased with his progress. It helps the whole team and makes the defense play harder.”
Sam is able to play with so much tenacity on a consistent basis in part because of the depth Missouri has on the defensive line. Four defensive ends factor into a consistent rotation, and the entire line feeds off Sam’s presence.
“He’s always ready to go,” defensive tackle Lucas Vincent said. “It’s that next-level mindset.”
That next-level mindset seems to have spread throughout the entire locker room. Missouri is 5-0 heading into Saturday's game at No. 7 Georgia. Pinkel is starting to notice similarities between this team and some of his most successful teams in years past.
“There is chemistry and determination on this team,” Pinkel said. “A combination of both of those and high leadership skills affects the whole team.
“Most of the seniors have been here for five years, and they went to bowls every year except last year, and they want to get back.”
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.