For a team to have a good defense, it needs a strong front four.
For Missouri’s season to be a successful one, it needs its front four to excel on a consistent basis.
“They have a chance to be a real good front four…Let’s face it, if you want to be good on defense, that’s where it starts. I don’t care what you do,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “That’s why defensive linemen are the first guys picked in the NFL draft. They’re high-level people because they can change games. Certainly, they have a chance to be an exceptional front-four defense, which will make us a better defense, but let’s see if we can get it done.”
The Tigers return their entire unit, with a strong middle. Defensive tackles senior Atiyyah Ellison and junior C.J. Mosley, who was on the preseason All-Big 12 team, anchored the interior last season, combining for 10 sacks.
Even after a strong season, Pinkel has targeted those two as players who need to elevate the level of play. Mosley said he needs to spend more time in the backfield and produce to have a successful season.
“I would say for me, I need to make more big plays, sacks, (tackles for loss) and, especially, focus on stopping the run, so clogging that middle up,” Mosley said. “Can’t have no big runs go for big yardage. That’s what we try to crack down on.”
Mosley led the team with 16 tackes for loss. Ellison finished second with 14 tackles for loss and forced two fumbles.
The Tigers have an experienced unit in addition to Ellison and Mosley. Senior Zach Ville and sophomore Xzavie Jackson will likely start at defensive end, but the depth does not end there.
Behind Jackson is sophomore Brian Smith, who had an NCAA-best eight sacks as a freshman in 2003. Smith and Jackson shared the Team Freshman of the Year Award. In addition, the Tigers have senior Phil Pitts as a backup defensive end.
Somewhat buried on the depth chart is freshman Stryker Sulak. Although likely to redshirt, Sulak possesses the quickness and speed, which consistently caused problems for the offense during intrasquad scrimmages.
Despite having talent at the position, the Tigers spent most of the preseason working on technique and positioning for pass rushing and run stopping. It began with the first drill on the first day of fall preseason practices.
“We definitely worked real hard on it,” Pitts said. “We really worked on all our plays and showing where we fit into gaps. With all the work we’ve put in to stopping the run game, it’s something we’re definitely more prepared to stop.”
The importance of positioning, though, means little if players do not approach every play with the requisite intensity to stop Kansas State running back Darren Sproles, who set a school record when he ran past Missouri for 273 yards in the Wildcats’ 24-14 win last season.
“It’s very important to be in the right position because with the league we play in and the teams we play, if one person is out of position, that running back is going to find that hole,” Pitts said. “So that’s very important, but even if you’re in the wrong spot and you have a lot of heart to stop the run, a lot of passion and your motor is going, you might be able to make that play through the wrong gap or you might be able to pick your teammate up if he got blocked in his gap.
“So it’s a little bit of a mixture of both. You can’t just have one and expect to be a good run defense.”
Strong play along the defensive line should also help ease the Tigers’ transition to a base 4-3 formation, as should the progression of Dedrick Harrington and David Richard, who are switching to linebacker. Last season, the Tigers typically used two linebackers.
“I think the best thing that helps a linebacker is a good defensive line,” Pinkel said. “It’s amazing how much better linebacker you can play when you’ve got big guys up front to clog up holes and gaps and so on and so forth. I would suggest most linebackers look more toward their defensive line.”