Defensive line is a possible area of concern for Missouri

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

In previous days we talked about areas in which Missouri is underrated, in which skill and depth may lead to a more successful year for the Tigers than many expect. Today, though, we start our preview of the Missouri defense with an area that is of concern — the defensive line.

There are some strong players up front, but very little depth, especially at tackle. And if you’re looking for “irreplaceable” guys, this is where you’d probably find them. With some of the remarkable talent at the position in recent years that may be a surprise, but graduation and guys leaving early have hurt the team. Here’s what’s there now:

At the end position, things begin with Brad Madison. A two-time all-conference performer, he’s a speedy pass rusher and talented tackler. He’s coming off injuries that kept him out of spring drills, but has plenty of experience so that’s not a big issue. He’s supposed to be at 100 percent when camp begins Thursday. Should that not be the case, he’s shown the ability and willingness to play through pain and his toughness and determination make him a real team leader.

Michael Sam is expected to start on the other side. He’s been an impressive backup for some time now. He makes a fine complement to Madison as he’s also a speed rusher. The two could be problematic for quarterbacks who don’t relish watching the game from flat on their backs.

The top reserve end is a guy I’ve been high on for some time now, sophomore Kony Ealy is an impressive tackler and another high motor rush end. From there, it’s a matter of whether you want the experience of junior Brayden Burnett, who has been a solid backup for some time now, or Shane Ray, a redshirt freshman who lacks the experience at this level but probably is going to be more skilled when all is said and done. Depth is less of an issue at end.

Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.

On the other hand, at tackle there’s more of a drop-off after the starters. Sheldon Richardson was the big story of last year’s camp when he finally arrived at Columbia after a long and winding road. He originally signed with Missouri out of high school as one of the top linemen in the nation, but after failing to qualify academically ended up going the juco route, then announced he had changed his mind and would be going to Southern California. He finally re-committed to Missouri and showed through the course of last season why USC would have wanted him. Richardson had 37 tackles in 2011 and while he’s fine at just stuffing the run, he’s also a solid rusher. He’s a senior whose commitment is solid. He also brings some fun, once mocking me as I interviewed a teammate by holding up a hairbrush like a microphone.

Speaking of commitment, we’ve already talked about the other tackle. Matt Hoch’s weight gain in off-season conditioning work makes him a legitimate SEC lineman at 290. The sophomore is still learning the position but was chosen the most improved lineman in spring drills and he’s lost very little speed as he’s put on that muscle, so like the rest of the Tiger linemen, he’ll be a quick rusher who will put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, now the question is just can this line stop the run.

The players behind Richardson and Hoch are good but not great. Sophomore Lucas Vincent is definitely the best of the bunch, but we worry a little about his health after tearing a pectoral muscle recently.  He’ll be one of the guys we’ll watch very closely in the early practices. Behind him, both Jimmy Burge and George White are experienced backups but neither is really at the level of an SEC starter. Marvin Foster has fought injuries but may move up on the depth charts if he can stay healthy.

The Newcomers

Harold Brantley is a bit of a mystery, he wasn’t highly touted especially coming out of high school, recruited by Syracuse he decided to de-commit and come instead to Columbia. Has the size and athletic ability and may eventually work into a fine tackle.

Rickey Hatley has a slightly more impressive resume, coming in as a second team All-State player out of Texas, I’ve seen some impressive film on this kid, he has a nose for the ball and could be a big sack guy in the future for Missouri.

Evan Winston comes in as the most exciting line prospect in the class of 2012, a 270-pounder who can get off a block to make tackles. A Michigan All-Stater, a starter since his sophomore year Winston has the ability to play either tackle or end, and is also a smart guy who plans to study pre-med.

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