COLUMBIA — To understand the success Missouri’s defensive line is having in 2013, you have to understand Sheldon Richardson.
Richardson made 38 more tackles than any other Missouri defensive lineman in 2012. He went on to be drafted No. 13 overall in the 2013 NFL Draft by the New York Jets, and he’s been one of the best rookies in the NFL this season.
Richardson was more than just the best player on Missouri’s defense in 2012, he was the one who set the tone in meeting rooms and on the field. Make no mistake, his speed and quickness at 300 pounds helped him make 75 tackles in his final season at Missouri, but it was more about his relentless attitude and non-stop motor.
The rest of Missouri’s defense wasn’t always playing at his level, either. Richardson wasn’t afraid to voice his frustration, nor did he have any shortage of confidence in himself. He would line up across from anybody and didn't mind speaking up for himself or his teammates. At his pro day the month before the draft, he stood in a crowd of reporters and was asked which teams have shown interest in him. He responded with, “The whole NFL wants Sheldon Richardson.”
Regardless of Missouri’s record in 2012, Richardson always backed up his words by holding himself to a high standard on the field. He expected the same from his teammates, and in 2013, they’re starting to make him proud.
Ranked No. 9 in the SEC in rushing defense a year ago, Missouri now is second behind only Alabama in that category. The Tigers also lead the SEC in sacks with 37 after recording 21 all of last season.
“I know he’s extremely proud of us,” Missouri defensive end Kony Ealy said. “That’s what he expected from us last year. It didn’t gel like that, because everybody’s not the same and we didn’t have the right mindset last year. This year is a whole different year, a whole different ballgame.”
Ealy calls him another brother. Shane Ray looked to him as the father figure of the defensive line. Markus Golden has referred to him as an inspiration.
Like Ealy and Golden, Richardson came from the inner city of St. Louis. He’s living proof that you don’t have to be a victim of your circumstances. Richardson was unique and passionate; but his style of play, his way of doing things has clearly translated to the professional game.
“The way he likes to play, it’s showing,” Ealy said. “The way he likes to play, we’re adapting to that. We fed off of what we did last year and what we can do this year. We’re doing better for it.”
The Tiger defensive line is doing so well, in fact, that in a recent conversation with Ray, Richardson had a scary thought.
“‘Man it makes me wonder if I would have stayed,” Richardson told Ray.
“Hey man, if you would have stayed, it probably wouldn’t have been fair,” Ray said.
In order to understand the success Missouri’s defensive line is having in 2013, you need to understand what the players put themselves through in fall camp.
Every questions was about replacing Richardson. Every scrimmage was spent wondering where the pass rush was going to come from. Ealy was coming off a 3.5-sack season. Michael Sam’s career high was 4.5 sacks. Ray was nothing more than an unproven redshirt sophomore with untapped potential. Missouri even moved Golden from linebacker to defensive end to bolster the depth.
With nobody else to turn to besides each other, they did the only thing they could do. They competed against each other.
Ealy and Sam were the presumed starters entering spring ball and fall camp, but they ended up having to earn it. The rotation became more frequent when Golden and Ray continued to make plays in scrimmages. Defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski had to start giving them more snaps. Whoever performs the best will play. That was established early.
“You have to look at it this way,” Ealy said. “We have backups – and I don’t like to call them backups because anybody can start – but we have second-depth guys playing like they’re first string. And that’s because during practice, we interchange.”
Ealy and Sam still received the bulk of the playing time. Richardson was the tone setter in 2012, but Sam has taken on that role in 2013. He has 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss this season, both of which lead the team. His teammates have followed suit. In total, the four-man rotation at defensive end has combined for 49 tackles for loss.
“In our defensive line room, we’re like dogs,” Ray said. “We have to get to the ball. That’s what we do. That’s our style.”
In order to understand the success Missouri's defensive line is having in 2013, you should appreciate how far the group has come.
Missouri's defensive line looked like it would have a tough time containing mobile quarterbacks this season. To open the year, Murray State quarterback Maikhail Miller scrambled for 73 yards on the Tigers.
By the time the final regular season game against Texas A&M rolled around, Missouri had improved dramatically in that area. The Tigers' defensive line helped hold reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel to 21 rushing yards. Missouri was the only team all season to limit him to one total touchdown.
It took until the fourth game of the season for a Missouri defensive end to record a sack, but now, offenses can't keep any of them out of the backfield. The four-man rotation at defensive end has combined for 27.5 sacks, including two against Manziel.
Truth be told, if you want to understand the success of the 2013 Missouri team as a whole, you have to understand what this defensive line has done for the team. It's helped transform a defense that was terrible in 2012 into one of the best in the SEC.
It's one of the main reasons Missouri is a win away from a conference championship.
One final test lies ahead against Auburn and SEC-leading rusher Tre Mason. The triple-option attack Auburn runs is another challenge for a unit that has risen to the occasion consistently this season.
Strong play up front has been a constant for the 11-win Tigers. Without it, who knows where they would be.
"You know one thing about the SEC," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "It's a line-of-scrimmage league, meaning if you're not good up front, it's very difficult to win at a high level."
Supervising editor is Erik Hall.