After Brian Smith’s college career ended when he broke his hip against Kansas State on Oct. 21 last year, the Missouri defense just wasn’t the same.
A unit that led the nation in total defense four games into the season still finished a respectable 39th in the country, and third in the Big 12 Conference, which were significant improvements over the past few seasons. But it was clear that quarterbacks had a lot less to worry about after the injury to Smith, who finished as the Tigers’ all-time leader in career sacks with 31.5 and fell just 2.5 short of the Big 12 record.
After the win over Kansas State, Missouri was 7-1, and it averaged 3.6 sacks per game with Smith in the lineup. The Tigers lost their next three games, recording a total of just two sacks against Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa State. In the final five games of the season, Missouri had just seven sacks.
This year, the Tigers not only have to deal with not having Smith, who had 7.5 sacks last year, but they also have to make up for the loss of their other 2006 starter at defensive end, Xzavie Jackson, who led the team with eight sacks, making the pass rush a huge concern for the coaching staff.
“We have to continue to develop our speed rush,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “You saw last year how our defense changed when we lost Smitty (Brian Smith) to that injury in the middle of the year.”
One player who will be heavily counted on to put pressure on the quarterback is junior Stryker Sulak. Sulak started the final five games of 2006 and said trying to fill in for Smith was a tough task.
“I tried to do my best,” he said. “There was no way I could have replaced him in any way. He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen play, so obviously I didn’t step in thinking I was going to do what he did.”
After Sulak broke out in his freshman campaign in 2005 when he started seven games, recorded four sacks and was named to the Big 12 All-Freshman first team, his sophomore year was a disappointment. He recorded just two sacks and said he wasn’t very happy with his performance in his starts.
“I could’ve always done better,” he said. “All I can do is look forward now.”
This year, the pressure on Sulak to get to the quarterback will be even greater without Jackson on the other side. Junior Tommy Chavis will start in Jackson’s place. Chavis, at 280 pounds, is a large defensive end who is expected to be more of a run stopper than a pass-rush specialist. He has yet to record a sack in a Missouri uniform.
Sulak said he and Chavis were working hard to improve.
“We need to step it up a lot,” he said. “Neither one of us comes in with a lot of sacks. All we’ve got to do is work on it in practice and hopefully it will show on the field.”
With the Tigers returning eight starters on offense, Sulak says the pressure is on the defense to step it up to the same level of an offense that could be pretty special.
“They’re fun to watch,” he said. “Whenever I’m not in, everybody’s watching them, and it’s fun. They have a lot of weapons.”
Sulak said he was not too worried about the defense having to replace six starters.
“It’s not really a concern because a lot of them have playing time,” he said. “The people who are stepping in have played before, so all it is is playing a little more than they’re used to, and usually that’s not a big deal.”
Sulak knows that two of the most important starters Missouri will have to replace on defense played his position, but he said he and Chavis don’t put pressure on themselves to be as good as Smith and Jackson.
“They were great players, and obviously were one of the best pass rush units in the league,” he said. “So we’re going to do our best. That’s all we can do.”
NOTES: The offense won Saturday’s scrimmage, the first of the year, at Dan Devine Pavilion. Chase Daniel had two touchdown passes, including a 50-yarder to Jason Ray, and running backs Tony Temple and Jimmy Jackson broke several long runs. Martin Rucker was the leading receiver, hauling in eight catches for 87 yards and a touchdown.
- The highlight of the game for the defense was an interception by La’Roderick Thomas, who picked off a J.P. Tillman pass and started to return it for what likely would have been a 35-yard touchdown before the play was stopped. The biggest hit of the day was delivered by linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who crushed receiver William Franklin on a reverse with a huge hit that drew loud reactions from the crowd and the defensive sidelines.
- The Tigers were given a brief scare when tight end Chase Coffman went down clutching his hip after making a catch on short out route. Coffman was down for several moments before walking off on his own power. Pinkel said Coffman had a hip pointer, but would be fine.