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Defensive line carries Missouri to surprising start

Gary Pinkel

Gary Pinkel

National Signing Day 2012 was supposed to be a watershed day for Missouri football.

The Tigers won a recruiting battle that day with Arkansas for Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation’s No. 1 prospect. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound receiver from Springfield (Mo.) Hillcrest would give quarterback James Franklin a big target in Missouri’s prolific spread offense.

More important, the signing showed Missouri would be able to grab recruits on par with their opponents in the SEC, the league the Tigers joined less than three months earlier.

That assumption was wrong.

Green-Beckham has been excellent as a sophomore, one of the key members of a standout receiving corps. But receivers aren’t always the foundation for SEC champions. Defensive linemen are.

In that way, Missouri’s key recruit for the surprising 2013 run was a lightly recruited defensive end who signed three recruiting cycles before Green-Beckham. Fifth-year senior Michael Sam, from Hitchcock, Texas, is a more typical example of how Missouri builds contenders. Green-Beckham is the outlier.

Now the SEC’s leader in sacks and tackles for loss, Sam was an undersized end in high school, playing on the mainland across from Galveston, Texas. Hitchcock High rarely produced Division I talent, and when it did, prospects went to Houston or Sam Houston State.

Recruited by Arizona State, Iowa State, Colorado State and Houston before signing with Mizzou, Sam has become one of the frontrunners for SEC defensive player of the year on the surprise team in the league. On Saturday, the 7-0 Tigers can all but seal the SEC East with a win over South Carolina.

With a defensive line comprised mostly of players passed on by Big 12 powers, Missouri has improved from 5-7 in the Tigers’ first season in the SEC to No. 5 in the initial BCS rankings.

“Missouri’s made a living off finding those guys that bigger programs didn’t want to waste their time on and turn them in prospects,” said Barton Simmons, national recruiting analyst for 247Sports.

The top six players on Missouri’s defensive line include five recruits who were three-star prospects in the 247 Composite. Only one, Kony Ealy, was a four-star recruit out of high school.

Those kinds of recruiting numbers, for what they’re worth, is rare for an SEC contender.

“We have an evaluation system and we don’t have stars on it,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “We have a system and we believe in our system. That’s how we make our decisions.”

The system, at least this season, is to play zone and led pass rushers like Sam and Ealy work against the pass, Georgia coach Mark Richt said. His quarterback, Aaron Murray, threw two interceptions and took two sacks in the loss to the Tigers two weeks ago.

Missouri leads the SEC in sacks per game at 3.3. The next best teams, Auburn and Georgia, average 2.7. Only Alabama is allowing fewer than Missouri’s 3.6 yards per carry, and only Auburn averages more tackles for a loss per game.

“They play a lot of zone coverage and cover 2,” Richt said. “It’s difficult to throw the ball down the field against that look. They force you to be patient. They force you to try to get an eight-, nine-, 10-, 11-play drive and they figure someone will self-destruct along the way.”

Missouri’s secret weapon, for years, has been defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. Kuligowski, who played one season under Nick Saban at Toledo in 1990, has been the line coach for Pinkel since 1996 at Toledo and on Pinkel’s staff since 1992.

Kuligowski helped develop some of these unearthed recruits into prized NFL prospects, including end Aldon Smith (seventh overall pick in 2011) and tackle Ziggy Hood (No. 32 pick in 2009).

“Craig Kuligowski is one of the best defensive line coaches in the country and he deserves recognition for how he develops players,” Pinkel said. “We develop kids as good or better than anyone in the country.”

Granted, Missouri may be benefitting from a league-wide drain on defensive talent as well. In the last two NFL drafts, a total of 16 defensive players from the SEC have been selected in the first round. But one of those 16 was Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Linebacker Zavier Gooden also followed in the third round.

Meanwhile, the SEC East has become injury central. This season, Missouri has caught a break as one of the healthiest teams in the division, even after starting quarterback James Franklin went down with a separated shoulder Oct. 12.

Georgia has played most, if not all, of the conference season without running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin-Scott Wesley. Missouri defeated the Bulldogs 41-26 in Athens.

By the time Missouri played Florida, the Gators were down five starters to injury and lost a sixth, defensive back Cody Riggs, to a targeting ejection on the first play of the game. Missouri won 36-17.

"Craig Kuligowski is one of the best defensive line coaches in the country and he deserves recognition for how he develops players. We develop kids as good or better than anyone in the country.”
-Missouri coach Gary Pinkel

This week, Missouri will face another SEC East contender in South Carolina without a starting quarterback when backup Dylan Thompson starts in place of Connor Shaw.

Put an asterisk on Missouri’s 7-0 start if you must, but the Tigers could wrap up a sweep of SEC East powers this week.

The question then becomes if a peculiar geographic fit in the SEC can become a consistent player.

When Missouri grabbed high-level recruits like Green-Beckham or Richardson, they tended to be within state lines. Missouri built a winner in the Big 12 by doing what most teams not named Oklahoma or Texas do — dip into the Lone Star State find under-recruited prospects or developmental projects.

Now in the SEC, Missouri is trying to do the same with a Southeastern approach.

For example, Missouri’s 2014 class includes six commitments from the state of Florida virtually ignored by Florida, Florida State, Miami and even UCF. Missouri’s two commitments from Nashville, Tenn., did not have offers from Tennessee or Vanderbilt. Three-star receiver commit Nate Brown was offered by Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt but not Georgia or Auburn.

“They’re getting good players, but they’re getting guys that the other SEC powers didn’t want,” Simmons said. “That’s a cause for concern if you’re any other program, but because of the track record Missouri has had there’s every reason to think they know what they’re doing.”