Atiyyah Ellison says opponents seek him out on the football field. C.J. Mosley, Missouri’s other starting defensive tackle, says he doesn’t believe Ellison is as big a focus as he claims.
“From what he tells me, he attracts a lot of attention,” Mosley said after Missouri‘s game against Troy. “Last time out, he told me he saw a lot of triple teams. I don’t know if that’s possible. But he said he’s seen triple teams so far.”
Although Ellison has not seen as many blockers as he takes credit for, the two linemen have helped the Tiger defense improve heading into Big 12 Conference play.
Senior linebacker James Kinney, who is on pace to break the Missouri school record for career tackles of 415, said the two tackles are a reason he makes so many plays.
“They’re out there doing their job, getting double teamed and getting penetration and making my job easier to get down hill and fill holes,” Kinney said.
So far this season, Ellison and Mosley have done more than fill holes and wait for Kinney to make tackles, they are making the play themselves.
Ellison, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior, has 18 tackles to rank fourth on the team. Mosley, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound junior, is one tackle behind Ellison, but he leads the Tigers and is tied for best in the Big 12 Conference with six tackles for a loss and three sacks.
This high level of play is what coach Gary Pinkel expected out of the experienced duo at the start of the season. Following the Tigers’ first preseason scrimmage, Pinkel said the key to the defense’s performance would be the play of the defensive line.
“They have the chance to be a real good front four,” Pinkel said. “They have the chance to be real good, but you got to go do it. I’ve experienced it. There’s some size; they can run. Let’s face it, the only thing to improve a defense is the first four … That’s why defensive linemen are the first guys picked in the NFL draft, if they are high-level people, is because they can change D’s.”
Mosley said Pinkel is correct. He said if he and Ellison do their jobs, playing defense is easier for the rest of the unit.
“We make it easier for the linebackers and the secondary,” Mosley said. “We plug holes and the linebackers can sniff out the rest. So if we have them backed up, they’ll have to throw the ball and if we get some pressure on the quarterback, there will be some ugly balls in the air, so that means interceptions for the D-backs.”
Kinney said the defensive line’s connection to the linebackers is similar to the job the offensive line does in helping the quarterback perform.
“It’s like, linebackers are like the quarterback,” Kinney said. “You need a good offensive line to be a quarterback, and you need a good D-line to really shine as a linebacker.”
The two tackles are helping put the spotlight on the whole defense. They said they work together to make certain they continue to improve. Ellison said they watch tape together, pointing things out and asking questions of each other. He added that the friendly competition between each other helps lead to better things.
“Competition wise, it helps a lot,” Ellison said. “I mean I want to make plays just like him, and right now he’s ahead of me on the points board, so I’ve got to get my game up.”
Mosley also said the two push each other during games.
“I’ll tell him, ‘I want to see you do this,’ and he’ll tell me, ‘I want to see you do that,’” Mosley said. “And by doing that, it makes us think about it, and when you think about it, it’s going to happen, and we want it to happen.”
Last season, Ellison and Mosley made lots of things happen with each earning All-Big 12 honors. Ellison earned third-team All-Big 12 honors with 72 tackles, including 14 for a loss and four sacks. Mosley was named second-team All-Big 12 after finishing with 67 tackles, 16 for a loss and six sacks. He was also named to the preseason All-Big 12 team for this season.
Pinkel said that output, though, would not be good enough this season.
“We tell our players, ‘If you had a good year the previous year, you want to have a better performance your next year,’” Pinkel said.
Kinney said both players are extremely talented, and he has noticed their improvement the past few years.
“C.J. has always been a real good player, real special, has a lot of quickness, a real powerful guy,” Kinney said. “Atiyyah is just a real fast, natural athlete and a big, strong guy too. And they both have improved a lot each year.”
Ellison said the hardest part of his improvement as a Tiger was dealing with a position switch. When he arrived at Missouri for the 2002 season, he was moved to defensive end. After one season on the outside, Ellison was moved back to the middle last season, where he felt more comfortable. However, he said he still has room to grow.
“I think I’ve improved a lot, especially coming in and switching positions right off the bat,” Ellison said. “I’m not where I think I should be at the end of the season, like each week I’m getting better and better.”
Mosley has not made any position switches, but he is also improving every week and has continued to perform at a higher level.
“He’s playing very well,” Pinkel said. “He’s a powerful athlete, and he’s playing extremely well. He’s very active, making a lot of plays and getting a lot of penetration at the line of scrimmage.”
That kind of penetration at the line will lead to double teams or maybe Mosley will soon start to see that elusive triple team.