NCF Nation: Lucas Vincent

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Since Gary Pinkel arrived at Missouri in 2000, he’s had six first-team all-conference selections on the defensive line. Four of those players went on to be first-round NFL draft picks, and there are currently eight former Tigers defensive linemen playing in the NFL.

“There’s two things I’ve been fortunate with most of my career,” Pinkel said last month. “Having good quarterbacks and having guys on defense that can get the other guys’ good quarterbacks.”

Getting to opponents’ quarterbacks has never been a problem for Missouri under Pinkel. Last year, the Tigers led the SEC with 41 sacks, which marked the seventh time in the past nine seasons that they finished with 30 or more sacks as a team. Michael Sam (12) and Kony Ealy (9) were both among the conference leaders in sacks, but they have moved on to greener pastures and will be playing their football on Sundays this fall.

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonShane Ray has proven the ability to get to opposing quarterbacks. Just ask Johnny Manziel.
That leaves a rather large void at defensive end. A dilemma for most schools, sure, but not at Missouri. Not where strong, fast, 6-foot-3 defensive linemen seem to grow on trees. Not where Markus Golden and Shane Ray are patiently waiting for their chance to shine.

How good are Golden and Ray? There were NFL scouts who came to Missouri last season to see Ealy and Sam, but left wondering if the two behind them weren’t better.

Golden, specifically, might have been the Tigers' most productive defensive lineman last year. Despite playing only about 40 percent of the snaps, he still led all ends with 55 tackles. He also had 13 tackles for loss and six sacks.

“Really, we were just competitive,” Golden said. “When you got a bunch of good players in one room, good defensive linemen in one room, we compete against each other.

“That’s what it was with Kony and Mike. It wasn’t like they were trying to teach me something -- they knew I knew what to do -- it was just like we’re going to all compete against each other and see who does the best.”

Now it’s Golden’s turn to take center stage. It’s Ray’s turn to start opposite him. Missouri might have lost a pair of elite defensive ends from last season, but that doesn’t mean the defensive line is going to take a step back. In fact, it might take a step forward.

Just ask Missouri center Evan Boehm, who goes against that group every day in practice.

“Oh, my,” he said. “As an offensive line, we’ve gone against the majority of the defensive lines in the SEC, and we firmly believe that we have one of the best in the conference, if not the nation.

“Going against guys like Markus, like Shane, like Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Josh Augusta, Harold Brantley -- you’re just swapping guys out each and every time, but they’re not skipping a beat. And when they’re doing that, we’re just getting more work each and every time. We’re getting better each and every time. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to go against the best, and I think we’re doing that.”

At SEC media days, Pinkel was already talking up Marcus Loud and Charles Harris, the next crop of redshirt freshmen defensive ends who have a chance to be special once Golden and Ray are gone. And after those two, there will be two more to follow. It's why some people have started calling Missouri "Defensive Line U."

“A lot of people try to call us that,” Golden said. “But we call it ‘D-line Zou.’ I say that because we look at it as we’re Tigers, and we say we’re a bunch of animals, a bunch of animals on that defensive line, a bunch of guys that just play hard and physical.”

This year’s version of "D-line Zou" will be critical if the Tigers want to make it back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game.

Missouri Tigers season preview

August, 14, 2014
Aug 14
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Missouri Tigers:

2013 record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC), beat Oklahoma State 41-31 in the AT&T Cotton Bowl

Final grade for 2013 season: In their second season in the SEC, the Tigers were one of the league's biggest surprises.

Key losses: QB James Franklin, WR Dorial Green-Beckham (dismissed), WR L'Damian Washington, WR Marcus Lucas, RB Henry Josey, OT Justin Britt, G Max Copeland, DE Michael Sam, DE Kony Ealy, LB Donovan Bonner, CB E.J. Gaines

[+] EnlargeMarkus Golden
Scott Kane/Icon SMIMissouri's defense will be more improved with the return of DE Markus Golden for the 2014 season.
Key returnees: QB Maty Mauk, C Evan Boehm, OT Mitch Morse, OT Connor McGovern, RB Russell Hansbrough, WR Jimmie Hunt, WR Bud Sasser, DT Matt Hoch, DT Lucas Vincent, LB Kentrell Brothers, S Braylon Webb

Projected 2014 starters: QB Mauk, RB Hansbrough, WR Sasser, WR Hunt, WR Darius White, TE Sean Culkin, LT Morse, LG Anthony Gatti, C Boehm, RG Mitch L. Hall, RT McGovern, DE Markus Golden, DT Hoch, DT Vincent, DE Shane Ray, LB Donavin Newsom, LB Brothers, LB Michael Scherer, CB Aarion Penton, CB John Gibson, S Webb, S Ian Simon

Instant impact newcomers: CB Kenya Dennis (juco), WR DeSean Blair, WR Lawrence Lee

Breakout player: With the caveat that they aren't yet star players, it would be understandable to look at Mauk and Golden, two very talented first-time starters. Mauk is something of a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, while Golden wreaked havoc with 6.5 sacks last season despite playing just 40 percent of MU's snaps. But the true breakout Tiger is White, the Texas Longhorns transfer who was once the No. 3-rated wide receiver prospect in the Class of 2010. White's numbers in his first season for Mizzou weren't too impressive (seven catches, 76 yards and a TD), but there wasn't much opportunity behind the established starters. That situation changes drastically in 2014, as the Tigers need White to explode out of the gate and be the weapon everyone expected he would be in college.

Most important game: The Tigers lost just one regular-season game, and it took double overtime for South Carolina to score the win at Faurot Field. This season, Missouri will look to return the favor in Columbia, South Carolina, and the stakes could be just as high for two of the better teams in the SEC East. After four nonconference games to start the season, Mizzou kicks off its league schedule with a chance to make a profound statement that 2013 was no fluke.

Biggest question mark: There's reason for concern in the secondary, where the Tigers must replace two departed starters at cornerback. But there's no escaping the glaring holes at wide receiver after MU lost its top three pass-catchers from 2013. Washington and Lucas were seniors. The Tigers were prepared to replace those two. But kicking Green-Beckham off the team -- although necessary -- significantly altered this season's forecast. DGB was the kind of star who commanded the attention of every defensive game plan. Missouri's top returning receivers, Sasser and Hunt, have thus far only contributed in limited roles. Can they step in and fill the void?

Upset special: Missouri will play three teams that are currently ranked in the coaches' poll -- South Carolina, Georgia and Texas A&M. The Gamecocks could be the class of the East Division. The Aggies are expected to improve by leaps and bounds by mid-November. Both of those contests are in enemy territory, which means the Tigers' best chance of scoring an upset could be against Georgia in Columbia, Missouri. Regardless of whether MU can pull off a win against the Bulldogs, there are bound to be a lot of points on the board. Both teams have a lot of firepower on offense and questions in the secondary.

They said it: "[Mauk] is a very natural leader. I knew that when he was in high school. He was one of those guys that he loves to play football, loves to compete. I think he's a dual-threat guy. He can run. He's got very good speed. Puts a lot of pressure on the defense utilizing both of those things. ... He's got a great work ethic. He's a winner. Players know it. He's a remarkable competitor. They know it. They respect the way he leads because he leads in a very, very positive way. We're very fortunate to have a young player like him. That's why he did so well last year when we threw him in there as a freshman." -- Gary Pinkel at SEC media days

Preseason predictions

ESPN Stats & Information: 6.97 wins

Bovada over-under: 7.5 wins

Our take: Stats and odds are certainly helpful tools when it comes to making predictions, but so is basic football knowledge. Missouri's strength is unquestionably on both lines, which is where games are won. The Tigers have a big, strong offensive line with plenty of experience (a combined 72 starts). Give Mauk time to throw, and he'll have a good chance to be productive even with a developing receiving corps. On the defensive line, Missouri had the league's top pass rush in 2013 and shouldn't miss a beat this fall. And then there's the schedule. It's very manageable. Missouri expects to survive its nonconference slate before facing eight consecutive SEC foes. The Tigers start that run with South Carolina, Georgia and Florida -- the perceived top threats in the SEC East. By the end of October, the division race could be a muddy mess but it's likely Missouri will be in the thick of it with a chance to go back to Atlanta for a second shot at the SEC title.
Recently, Michael Sam let members of the media in on a little secret behind Missouri's impressive season along the defensive line in 2013: They felt disrespected.

"Everybody thought our D-line was doomed because Sheldon Richardson was gone," Sam told reporters during Senior Bowl practices. "I kind of took that as disrespectful."

After 2012's unsatisfactory 5-7 SEC debut, on the outside it looked like the Tigers could be in more trouble in 2013 with Richardson, a first-round NFL draft pick, gone. What was left was a lot of potential but no proven playmakers.

[+] EnlargeMissouri Tigers
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarkus Golden, right, and the rest of the Missouri defensive line had plenty of reasons to celebrate in 2013. With Michael Sam and Kony Ealy gone, Golden could be the star of the show this fall.
Then the actual football started, and the Tigers were a menace up front, leading the SEC with 41 sacks and 107 tackles for loss during their fantastic SEC Year 2 turnaround. Sam, who was one of the nation's biggest surprises, led the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Fellow linemen Kony Ealy and Markus Golden combined for 14.5 more sacks and 27 tackles for loss.

That was a ton of production from arguably the SEC's best defensive line. Now, most of it is gone, as Sam graduated and Ealy declared for the NFL draft. But Tigers fans certainly shouldn't fret -- Missouri still has a lot of talent to work with in the trenches in 2014.

It starts with Golden, who didn't get as much love as Sam or Ealy but still managed to record 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss this past season. He has the makings of being a star in the SEC this fall. It was a bit of a surprise to even see him stay, which is a huge win for the Tigers but a loss for the rest of the league. You should be hearing his name a lot this fall.

And you can't double-team him, either. Not with the soon-to-be-not-so-unknown Shane Ray, who collected 4.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss last season, coming back at the other end position. He was also second on the team behind Ealy with 11 quarterback hurries. Yep, that was even better than Sam.

Ray, who will be a junior this fall, was a solid reserve for Mizzou last season and flashed signs of being a real handful for offensive linemen to handle. He went five straight games at one point during the season with being a part of a sack and has the chance at a nice breakout season in 2014.

Inside, Mizzou still has Matt Hoch, Harold Brantley and Lucas Vincent. All of these guys have what it takes to clog the middle yet again, and all of them have seen a good amount of time on the field. Brantley, who was a redshirt freshman last fall, could be someone to really keep an eye on going forward. He added around 20 pounds last year to get strong inside yet showed his athleticism and speed on a nifty 26-yard run on a fake punt against Ole Miss. Hoch is an underrated player who somehow figures out how to find the ball on plays, while Vincent has played in every game of his three-year career. Hoch and Vincent combined for 64 tackles, including 10 for loss, last year.

So while the Tigers will no doubt miss Sam and Ealy, they'll be just fine in 2014 with the players returning. This school has churned out defensive line studs in the past, thanks to the developmental skills of defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. With his track record, it appears he knows exactly what he's doing up front. Expect that to continue this fall.

Missouri first from Big 12 with all letters in

February, 3, 2010
2/03/10
1:32
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Gary Pinkel put a bow on his strongest recruiting class yet and he did it quickly.

The Tigers were the first Big 12 school to have all of their letters in.

Missouri has 23 commitments from 22 high school players and junior college transfer, Kenronte Walker of City College of San Francisco.

Pinkel has done a masterful job in the past of taking underrecruited players, particularly those from Texas, and turning them into stars once they hit college.

The Tigers again have dipped heavily in Texas with nine recruits. This group has a high benchmark to reach, considering the development of Texas players such as Chase Daniel, Danario Alexander and Sean Weatherspoon.

I like prospects like defensive linemen Kony Ealy and Lucas Vincent and running backs Greg White and Marcus Murphy.

This is Pinkel's strongest class yet. It should keep the Tigers in contention in the North Division for the next several seasons.

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