The disappearing act of “D-Line Zou” was one of the more disappointing aspects of the 2018 season for Missouri football.
Those dominant performances of years gone by from the likes of Shane Ray, Charles Harris, Markus Golden and Marcell Frazier? They really weren’t that long ago, but they seemed to be things of the past last season.
Terry Beckner Jr. provided flashes of Missouri’s defensive line’s former greatness, but by himself he wasn’t able to drive the kind of play that had become typical of Missouri’s line.
So now, nearly a week into fall camp this season, defensive end Chris Turner isn’t going to pretend there hasn’t been noise surrounding his unit.
“Honestly, we all hear it. I hate it. I hate people trying to doubt me. But it also pushes me, and same with my dudes,” Turner said.
Turner, a current junior, arrived in 2017 as a freshman to play alongside the likes of Frazier, Jordan Harold and Walter Palmore.
That core of leaders was trying to bridge the gap from Harris and Josh Augusta to the new class of lineman expected to carry on the title. It was a class that included Turner, Tre Williams, and Jordan Elliott, who had to sit out the 2017 season per NCAA eligibility rules.
Now, the baton has been passed to Williams, Elliott and Turner, and they’re attempting to carry on “D-Line Zou.”
To them, “D-Line Zou” hasn’t vanished.
“The culture has been created for those guys to excel at every level,” defensive line coach Brick Haley said. “Those guys are expected to carry a little bit higher standard than others.”
Ask Haley, Elliott or Turner to name the new leader of this year’s defensive line, and you won’t get a straight answer.
Elliott could be the powerful tackle that fans expected him to be last season. After putting in the offseason work to tone his body and get lean, the junior is quicker off the line.
Senior offensive left tackle Yasir Durant claims Elliott can be one of the more explosive defensive lineman in the SEC.
“I’ve seen him work in the offseason, always in the weight room, just doing little stuff to fix his body,” Durant said.
If Elliott can gain a step or two on opposing offensive lines, the Tigers could see more performances like the one he had against Arkansas last year. He tallied three sacks for a loss of 28 yards and one forced fumble, helping the Tigers to a shutout win over their border rival.
And with SEC running backs such as De’Andre Swift (Georgia), Ke’Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt) and Lamical Perrine (Florida) returning to their respective rosters and on Missouri’s schedule, winning in the trenches will be crucial for the Tigers this season.
For Haley, one defensive end stands out as someone who could lead the next pack of “D-Line Zou.”
“Chris Turner is a guy who, he does everything you want him to do, all the time. He’s that guy,” he said.
Turner started every game last season as a sophomore, but his 3½ tackles for loss and two sacks weren’t the kind of pass rush that Missouri is used to from its defensive ends.
He knows that, though, and he’s looking back to the tradition of the position for improvement.
“I’ve had some conversations with Charles Harris about what he did when he was here. Just talking about the work you’ve got to have. You work, you study plays, you watch film, even during the offseason,” he said.
It’s been a long road from the time of Harris to Turner’s time. In 2015, Harris’ final season at Missouri, the defensive ends averaged a sack every 163.2 snaps. Last season, Missouri’s defensive ends averaged a sack every 217.6 snaps.
The task of leading the team back to those kind of numbers might be too big for Turner to do on his own.
That’s the benefit of having Williams back. After a felony assault charge and a subsequent suspension late last season was reduced to a misdemeanor peace disturbance in July, the junior defensive end was reinstated to the team. And it hasn’t taken him long to get back into the swing of things, lining up with the first team during scrimmages Wednesday and Thursday.
“With him being back, it’s like, yeah, that’s the Tre I know. It’s not surprising that he’s taking first team reps already,” Durant said.
Haley noted Williams is not quite in football shape, but he’s been handed the responsibility of helping to lead the new era of “D-Line Zou.” As a reserve in 2018, he made five tackles for loss and recorded 2½ sacks. If he can secure a starting spot, the potential for even bigger numbers is there.
Williams is on the roster and practicing but isn’t listed on the depth chart yet. The spot of No. 1 defensive end belongs to sophomore Trajan Jeffcoat, who has missed the last few practices with a shoulder injury.
Despite his absence, Jeffcoat and fellow sophomore Jatorian Hansford show promise for what could be the next generation of defensive ends to make headlines at Missouri.
Jeffcoat got most of the snaps at defensive end during spring practices; and if injuries don’t plague him the rest of the year, he could see valuable playing time this fall. Hansford saw more limited field time last season but has had to transition from linebacker to defensive line.
Even as a linebacker, though, Hansford knew the culture surrounding Missouri defenses.
“I heard about coach Haley. He was one of the best D-line coaches. I just wanted to be a part of it,” he said.
He found out what being ‘a part of it’ means during practice on Wednesday.
On two consecutive plays, the pocket collapsed around quarterback Kelly Bryant. The first time, Bryant was just able to squeeze through a hole in the middle, though he didn’t get far before the play was whistled dead.
Elliott emerged from the pack with a yell and a pump of his fists. The defensive sideline erupted with roars.
The following play saw Williams chase Bryant out of the pocket from the right side, forcing him to throw the ball away. Again, the sideline broke out in celebration.
“We had some really good work yesterday,” Turner said after practice Thursday. “We’re doing 11-on-11 and the d-line is making play after play after play. We were celebrating together and everyone was there for each other.”
After seeing those plays, Durant is pretty confident that ”D-Line Zou” is back.
“They’re going to be the best. Definitely,” he said.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.