Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Defensive line play has been a constant in recent years for the Missouri Tigers.
Six defensive linemen have been drafted out of Missouri since 2011 — all but one in the first or second rounds. But with no seniors or returning starters on the line for the upcoming season, the defense’s play up front is, for once, a question mark.
“It happens sometimes, through attrition, whatever happens, you’re in the position that we’re in right now at some of those positions,” coach Gary Pinkel said.
Three starters’ departures were no surprise. Defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden were drafted into the NFL, and tackle Matt Hoch graduated. But with the offseason came the loss of the lone returning starter, nose guard Harold Brantley, and a probable replacement at defensive end, sophomore Marcus Loud. In May, Loud was dismissed for a violation of program policies, and in June Brantley sustained season-ending injuries in a June car crash.
Suddenly, the Tigers were left with one cumulative start among its defensive linemen.
“You never think if you look at the depth, ‘Yeah, this is set. Let’s roll,’” first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “You kind of always play the what-if game a little bit on, ‘Well, what if on practice two somebody turned their ankle, and he’s out for a little bit, how are we going to plug guys in?’ We have done some of that over the course of the summer and (were) forced to do it a little bit quicker.”
Sophomore Charles Harris, who made that lone start when Golden was injured last season, has had to take charge in absence of D-line experience.
“He’s doing a great job as a redshirt sophomore leading,” Pinkel said. “I mean, really, we don’t have a senior in that whole group, and so we’ve got some young guys, and Harold was doing most of the leadership before, or a lot of it, and Charles just jumped right in and said ‘I’m going to help this team.’ And that’s what he’s done.”
At 6-foot-3, Harris is as tall as Ray and taller than Golden, and his 255 pounds falls between them. Pinkel said when Harris first got Missouri’s attention, it wasn’t as a football player.
“I remember him slamming a basketball,” Pinkel said. “Explosiveness generally dictates that a guy has speed potential, and then we found out he was a good student and a pretty good kid. The thing we didn’t know, you never really know, he’s a remarkable competitor. He’s dying to be a great football player.”
Harris played in all 14 games last season and notched 19 tackles, four for loss, and two sacks. In his start against Indiana, he had four tackles, two solo, and a sack.
Junior Josh Augusta also played in every game last season, making a key interception against Central Florida, and is expected to start at defensive tackle this season. He had 23 tackles, 4.5 for loss, and a sack in 2014-15, registering three quarterback hurries.
The 6-foot-4 Augusta is listed at a generous 345 pounds, and Pinkel said there is still some work to be done to get him in football shape.
“We have a weight issue we’re dealing with him a little bit,” Pinkel said. “We’re asking him to get down to where he needs to be to help our football team, and he’s very, very capable. On the other hand, you’ve got to get in a position where you physically can play your best, so we’re working hard to help him through that.”
Odom didn’t sound concerned about that happening.
“Just because Josh is a large human, he’s always looked as, ‘Well, is he in shape or out of shape?’” Odom said. “Well, I know in 11-on-11 and all those drills, he didn’t miss a rep when he was going. So, is anyone in shape to go play with the urgency that it’s going to take to play against SEMO right now? … That’s a building process for everybody.”
Pushing the scale in the other direction is junior Rickey Hatley, slated to start at nose guard. He’s currently playing at 305, 10 pounds heavier than his weight in spring camp.
“I feel even faster now,” said Hatley, who previously alternated between defensive end and tackle. “The summertime, I got my strength up. I even feel quicker and faster. I feel good at that weight.”
Hatley has been at Missouri the longest of the D-line starters, having redshirted in 2012. Though he’s logged the years, he doesn’t feel his role is significantly different from the underclassmen.
“We’ve got to lead each other, because there’s no seniors,” he said. “I just can’t be a leader. Charles can’t be (the only) leader. We’ve all got to lead together, just help each other out.”
Atop the depth chart as the other defensive end is redshirt freshman Walter Brady. Brady sat out last season getting academically eligible. After spending most of his first year in the classroom, Brady has found himself in a starting position.
“Walter, he can pick it up easy,” said Harris, who Brady cited as the lineman who most helped him as he sat out. “Even though last year, he didn’t practice with us or anything … he’s definitely a quick learner, and I expect him to be a great player this year. He’s going to do great things.”
Though there are plenty of questions among the defensive line, the one Missouri fans might want answered most is the role of blue-chip recruit Terry Beckner Jr. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound freshman might figure into the rotation sooner than expected following the defensive line’s mass exodus.
That is, once he gets the basics out of the way.
“He’s a young guy that’s learning how to stretch and how to get taped in the morning and how to do weigh-in, and where the dining hall is, just like every other freshman,” Odom said. “But the urgency we have as coaches to get guys ready to play is as high as it is every other year, and we’ve got to sort those things out and just coach them like those are the guys that are going to be playing on Saturday. And then on down the line we’ll make decisions whether or not they’re ready or not.”
Beckner’s fellow linemen seem impressed with what they’ve seen so far.
“He can get off the ball probably just as, if not quicker than, Harold,” said Harris, Beckner’s roommate. “Don’t let Harold know that though. (Beckner) definitely has violent hands and everything that a defensive lineman needs to play at this level.”
If Harris wasn’t careful, Brantley might have heard him. He observed practice from a golf cart Saturday and has been around the program in high spirits.
“Having Harold here is definitely a motivator, seeing him here and just him being himself, him being funny and just being loud and just saying unquestionable things,” Harris said. “I mean, it’s definitely helped us get back on track. We need that vocal side of him that he has. He’s definitely provided for us throughout this camp so far.”
Brady echoed Harris’ statements.
“I bet Harold could be on fire right now, and he’s still going to be the motivational guy that he is,” Brady said. “He’s still going to be trying to run around here and do what he does, so I don’t think much has changed. He’s still happy. He’s still our leader.”