Kony Ealy. Michael Sam. Markus Golden. Shane Ray. Charles Harris. Marcell Frazier.
Since the first of back-to-back Southeastern Conference East championships in 2013, the Tigers have featured at least one wrecking ball of an edge rusher each year.
It seems the next version of “D-Line Zou” is still under construction.
Missouri’s pass defense has been the team’s largest weakness through five games. The Tigers have allowed 284.8 yards per game through the air, which ranks 116th in the FBS and 13th in the SEC. Communication breakdowns and near-misses in the secondary have received much of the blame, but the pass rush has also come up short.
Although Missouri finally generated some pressure against South Carolina on Saturday and registered 10 quarterback hurries, the team came away with just one sack. The Tigers have seven on the year. That puts them on pace for about 18 — assuming they qualify for a bowl game — well short of the 30 averaged through the first two years of Barry Odom’s tenure.
“They’re playing hard, man,” defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “We’ve just got to put a complete game together.”
From a statistical standpoint, the issue only worsens when applied to the team’s defensive ends. The trio of sophomore Chris Turner, redshirt sophomore Tre Williams and senior Nate Anderson have combined for just 3.5 sacks and two quarterback hurries. There are a few explanations for the lack of production.
For one, opposing offenses have been using more max protection packages. That typically means leaving at least one tight end behind to block and using a running back to chip at the legs of threatening rushers.
“Four against seven is never fun, but it’s respect,” Anderson said. “(Sometimes you need) just straight technique and will. It’s 90 percent effort for pass rush.”
“I’m not going to lie, I kind of like it,” Turner added. “I feel like they have to keep that many guys in and protect us.”
Occupying so many blockers should have made life easier in the secondary, but opposing receivers haven’t struggled to find holes in the coverage. So Missouri tried something else against South Carolina. It began to counter those looks with heavier pressure from the linebackers. And it worked. The Tigers’ 10 quarterback hurries against the Gamecocks, seven of which came from linebackers and defensive backs, represent over half of the team’s season total (19).
Work done by the defensive ends helped free their teammates to generate heat on the quarterback. However, those hurries only amounted to a measly sack total of one. And the players best equipped to take down the quarterback are the edge rushers. Defensive line coach Brick Haley wants to get more creative with his athletes up front to cause mismatches and confusion for opposing offensive lines.
“(You need) a lot of movements,” Anderson said. “Trying to stunt the front, chop up the front, move it around. Try to get their eyes in the wrong spots, and hopefully we’ll slide through.”
Opposing protection has a lot to do with it, but Haley said some of his players, while improving weekly, still aren’t where they need to be from a technique standpoint.
“We have to do a better job with our hands and our eyes and seeing things and being able to corral the (quarterback) and keep him in front of us,” Haley said. “The biggest thing we talk about is not letting our feet die in the pass rush.”
Anderson and Turner were both adamant that Haley will help them turn things around soon. The former, who has seen more playing time in his second year with Missouri, said the coach has already done wonders with his technique. The thundering Haley is quite a motivator in practice.
“Coach Haley is a hell of a coach,” Anderson said. “He’s going to coach the s- — out of us.”
“It makes you want to do better,” Turner added. “He’ll get you when you do something bad, but he’ll also get you when you make a good play, when you do something right. He keeps that same energy everyday, and it kind of helps us try to keep it the same, too.”
Next, it’s time to translate that energy during practice into sacks during games. The Tigers don’t have a wrecking ball yet. But a handful of bulldozers, utilized properly, can still do plenty of damage.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.