Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Much has been made of Missouri defensive lineman Charles Harris’ background as a basketball player. Coach Gary Pinkel frequently mentions Harris’ recruitment process during which Missouri was able to spot a diamond in the rough while judging his footage on the hardcourt.
But Harris isn’t exactly a scrub on the football field, either
He’s leading the charge on a revamped Missouri defensive line that is already defying expectations and led the country in tackles for loss with 25 through two games.
“I think (defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski) has done a great job with the defensive line, and also there are some pretty good players up there,” defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “We’re talking about wanting to be an aggressive defense.”
Harris has listened. The redshirt sophomore had 4 1/2 tackles for loss last Saturday against Arkansas State in just his third start. His six tackles for loss this season are tied for second in the nation.
“It doesn’t surprise” me,” Pinkel said Monday. “He’s in there lifting weights right now. And we’re not supposed to be lifting right now.”
There were concerns about Missouri’s ability to generate edge pressure with the loss of defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray to the NFL. Harris’ play this fall has helped alleviate some of those worries.
“I said it from the beginning,” Pinkel said. “People asked me about who’s the next guy, and that’s like the question around here, because we’ve been fortunate to have guys at those positions, and I brought his name up. So it’s not surprising me at all. And he’ll get better and better and better because of how committed he is and how dedicated he is and how bad he wants to win.”
Harris’ work ethic is on the tips of his coaches’ tongues when they’re asked about his play.
“It’s what everybody should try to be,” Kuligowski said. “His work ethic is the best. He is a very, very good player right now, and the reason he’s a very, very good player right now is because he has been relentless in pushing himself every single day to be the best. … He didn’t show up here and be the best. It’s unbelievable work ethic, dedication and hard work every day during the year since he’s been here that has allowed him to be at the place he is now.
“… I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy come in here as a freshman and have the work ethic and attitude and to be able to maintain it through the entire time that he has.”
Harris isn’t the only young lineman generating excitement in Columbia. Missouri currently lists two true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen on its defensive line depth chart. Four of those players got to show what they were made of at Arkansas State.
Down seven with less than a half to play last Saturday, the Missouri defense was fronted by true freshmen Terry Beckner Jr., Nate Howard and Josh Moore and redshirt freshman Walter Brady. The Tigers smothered the Red Wolves, who were backed up to their own 6 yard line, for minus-1 yards on three plays, forcing a punt that led to a Missouri touchdown.
“The fact that I didn’t know they were all freshmen speaks a lot about it,” senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “Regardless of who’s in there, I’m going to trust them all tremendously, but the fact that they’re three freshmen and a redshirt freshmen, it just shows you that there’s not really too much of a dropoff between the ones and the twos.”
Pinkel wasn’t exactly thrilled with so many youngsters being on the line in such a critical scenario. He told Kuligowski to not let it happen too often.
“It’s part of my master plan,” Kuligowski joked. “No, we have a rotation. … And so I try to hit it so that we don’t have all four freshmen in there at once, but sometimes, like the lotto, it just hits that number. But they all did a great job. My players told me to get used to it.”
Accident or no, the line’s youth bodes well for its future.
“It says we’ve recruited well, and Craig Kuligowski does a great job with those guys,” Pinkel said. “And they’re also very eager to learn and play at a high level, and I think it’s a combination of all those things for those young guys to be able to do that. It’s certainly a huge plus for us that we can get them those experiences in there, because they’re going to get better and better.”
Beckner came in as the top recruit out of Illinois and one of the biggest commitments secured in Missouri’s latest recruitment class.
“He’s a guy that we’ve been pushing to get better every day, and he’s really responded on getting better every day,” Kuligowski said. “We’re still just scratching the surface on how good he can really be, but I think he can be really, really, really good, a really special guy.”
Howard is perhaps the easiest freshman to spot on Missouri’s defensive line. Just look for the guy who always looks like he’s offside — even though he’s not — as he did on multiple plays against Southeast Missouri State.
“He was just fast, and that’s good,” Kuligowski said. “That’s what we’re looking for when we recruit guys, that they can get off the ball like that, so that’s good. Is that unusual? Yeah, probably. But that’s what we want him to do.”
That’s not to mention Brady, who had a tackle for a 5-yard loss on the aforementioned drive that nearly resulted in a safety.
“He’s a physical pass rusher and really he’s a good tackler, he likes to play football,” Kuligowski said. “He’s a good hustler.”
In all, there’s no shortage of tools for Kuligowski to work with.
“I think in terms of talent, especially the last class especially, these guys are Cadillacs,” Kuligowski said. “You know what I mean? These guys are Cadillacs. We’ve just got to make sure we’ve got enough gas to fill up the Cadillac.”