C.J. Mosley and Atiyyah Ellison were the foundation of a Missouri defense that was No. 2 in the Big 12 Conference in yards allowed last season. The duo, which started every game in the interior of the defensive line last season, is gone now.
But Ellison exhausted his eligibility and Mosley decided to leave the Tigers for the NFL a year early. Rebuilding the line is perhaps the Tigers’ biggest need on defense.
Coach Gary Pinkel shifted Lorenzo Williams, who was a freshman All-Big 12 defensive end last season, to tackle at the beginning of spring practice.
“First it was pretty tough,” Williams said. “It’s a lot tougher down on the inside. C.J. came back to help me out a little bit.”
Williams said playing inside has gotten easier as he grasps the differences between end and tackle.
“Quickness is a big thing on the inside,” Williams said. “You have to react much faster.
“Strength really comes into play also. Especially when you get double teamed against the big guys who can bench press 500 pounds a piece, and I’m just 270,” Williams said.
Williams said there is a lot of pressure to perform up to the standards of Ellison and Mosley.
“Those are some pretty big shoes to fill,” he said. “Two All-Big 12 guys, it’s going to be tough.”
Senior Earl Stephens has seen significant time at the other tackle spot this spring.
“Playing behind C.J. and Atiyyah last year really helped me,” Stephens said. “They helped me get my footwork right. I’m not too concerned about what they did though, I’m going to play and be me.”
Pinkel said he has been impressed by the defensive line’s play this spring.
“Williams has done a very good job, and Earl Stephens has done some very good things,” Pinkel said. “Behind them we have a bunch of guys who will all compete for the job. It’s going to be ongoing.”
The 6-foot-4, 300-pound Stephens switched to the defensive line from tight end after the 2002 season. Sophomore Josh Barbo, who was also recruited as a tight end, made the move to defensive line this spring.
“Usually tight ends are big enough and have the athleticism that can translate well to the line,” Pinkel said. “Barbo was sitting at No. 3 or 4 on the depth chart at tight end and we felt he could make an immediate impact on the line. He was very accepting and positive of the change and is doing well.”
Williams said he and Barbo have spent extra time learning the new position.
“We’ve worked together a lot and usually watch some extra film after practice. I think our improvement is showing.”
ALEXANDER SURGERY: Missouri linebacker Van Alexander had surgery Thursday to repair a broken bone in his left foot, Pinkel said.
Doctors had to insert a pin in the foot. Alexander will miss the rest of spring practice, which concludes April 16.
“He was bummed out about it like any great competitor is,” Pinkel said. “The good news is: I could have picked a few other injuries that are a lot worse than that.”
Alexander, who went to Rock Bridge, was a headliner of the Tigers’ 2004 recruiting class. He redshirted last season, but Pinkel expects him to play next season.
Tailback Marcus Woods, who sprained his left knee March 15, returned to practice Thursday but was held out of contact drills.
– Associated Press reports contributed to this story