Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Another year, another No. 56 racking up sacks for the Missouri Tigers.
The Missouri defensive end wearing that number has five sacks this season, tied for second in the Southeastern Conference and eighth in the country. No, not Shane Ray.
It’s redshirt freshman Walter Brady.
“He’s a really good athlete. He’s explosive. He’s a lot like Shane,” coach Gary Pinkel said of Brady. “He’s a great competitor, especially at that position. At that position you have to be remarkably competitive to be good … and that’s what I’m seeing from a young player.”
Ray, who now wears No. 56 for the Denver Broncos, set the Missouri school record with 14.5 sacks last season. Brady, meanwhile, was kept off the field by academic ineligibility.
Now, just five games into his collegiate career, Brady is making his mark. After beginning the year as a backup to redshirt sophomore Marcell Frazier, Brady has secured the starting job, recording two-sack games against Connecticut and South Carolina.
He has no plan to stop anytime soon.
“The school record in sacks is definitely something that I hope one day to accomplish,” he said, “and do it better than (Ray) did.”
Brady also had an interception last Saturday, the last of three Missouri interceptions against South Carolina. As safety Ian Simon blitzed on the play, Brady dropped back, right into the path of Lorenzo Nunez’s pass.
“It definitely has to do with our coaching scheme and the way (defensive coordinator Barry) Odom calls plays,” Brady said. “And he just so happened to dial up the right one and put me in a position to make a great play.”
In high school, Brady said, he didn’t record his first interception until his Homecoming game senior year at Florence (Ala.) High School.
“I was able to channel my inner tight end from way back in the day and come down with the ball,” said Brady, who played both outside linebacker and defensive end at Florence.
Brady was eager to transition to college football, but couldn’t participate in team-related activities his first year as he focused on studies. Getting academically eligible was a big weight off his shoulders, he said.
“It’s definitely the greatest feeling ever of finally getting past any barrier you have in your life at that moment,” he said. “The academic situation last year was my barrier, and I was able to overcome that barrier and be out here to help contribute to the team.”
He joined the team for spring ball, impressing Pinkel with his progress, and he played even better in fall camp — though Pinkel didn’t expect this much production this soon from Brady.
“In spring football, to say right then this player would be doing this a year later, I’d have been surprised,” Pinkel said. “Generally for any freshman, I’d have been surprised.”
Brady, however, said it’s no surprise to him. After his year-long delay, he’s not wasting any time.
“I was very eager for the season to come up,” he said. “And now it’s here, and it’s just like, ‘Well, it’s time to go to work.’”
Brady cited fellow starting defensive end Charles Harris as the teammate who motivated him most during his freshman year. And now that he’s playing alongside Harris — whose 9.5 tackles for loss are tied for most in the SEC and fourth in the country — he has a whole new level of admiration.
“Being next to Charles and understanding what he’s able to do just in practice is outstanding,” Brady said. “I know if I want to be half the athlete he is I have to step up my game.”
It’s worked so far. Brady and Harris are just two key components on a Missouri defensive line that has thrived despite the losses of 2014 stalwarts Ray, Markus Golden and Harold Brantley. The Tigers have averaged 9.6 tackles for loss per game this season, second in the country.
Brady said Missouri’s reputation of strong defensive line play under coach Craig Kuligowski is part of what drew him to Columbia.
“He just never stops talking,” Brady said of Kuligowski. “He’s always on our case about bettering our techniques and getting off the ball and making sure that we know our assignments.”
For Brady, that has translated to an average of one sack a game. Seven and a half of his 13 tackles have been for loss, and his 38 yards for loss on those plays are highest on the team.
“We had seen flashes of what he could do, it just wasn’t necessarily consistent before — and now it is,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “Now he’s making plays all over the place. I think it’s a lot just with his attitude. I think his attitude has changed a little bit, and I think it’s helped his game a ton.”
When Brady racked up two sacks against Connecticut, Ray was on the sideline to watch. Just in case his play on the field didn’t say enough, Brady had a few words for the former consensus All-American.
“I told him I was the real 56,” Brady said after the game. “Big shoes to fill, but Shane knows I’m the real 56.”