SEC: Charles Harris

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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.

Second-year stars: Missouri

June, 13, 2014
Jun 13
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Missouri surprised many outside -- and probably inside -- the Show Me State last year by making it to Atlanta for the SEC championship. A year removed from a dreadful SEC debut, the Tigers showed that they do in fact belong in their new home.

But can Mizzou sustain that success this season? There are a lot of new faces, and the team's most talented player -- wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham -- was dismissed during the offseason.

Where the Tigers hope to get some help is from their youngsters. Most of the 2013 class redshirted, giving players a chance to sit and learn from a group of veterans who dominated for most of last season.

There are a handful of second-year players who could reach star status for the Tigers, and they better be ready to get their feet wet with roster turnover on both sides of the ball.

[+] EnlargeAarion Penton
Zumapress/Icon SMICB Aarion Penton saw action in all 14 games last season as a true freshman.
Class recap: The Tigers hauled in the nation's No. 38 recruiting class in 2013. Mizzou didn't really need that class to contribute a lot because there was a slew of veterans to keep the Tigers' black-and-gold ship sailing smoothly. There were only two ESPN 300 members in the class in defensive tackle Josh Augusta and athlete Chase Abbington, but only Augusta made it to campus. Abbington headed to junior college and is currently a part of Mizzou's 2015 recruiting class.

Second-year star: CB Aarion Penton (5-foot-10, 185 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Penton flew well below the radar before arriving on Mizzou's campus. He didn't receive a lot of attention from schools and was a three-star prospect out of Saint Louis. Penton ranked 111th at the athlete position, according to ESPN's RecruitingNation.

2013 in review: Unlike many of his classmates, Penton actually got to see the field last year. In fact, Penton played in all 14 games, recording two starts when star cornerback E.J. Gaines went down with a leg injury halfway through the season. In his first start, Penton recorded his first career interception in the first quarter of the Tigers' 36-17 win over Florida. He finished the season with 16 tackles, including 12 solo stops.

2014 potential: Mizzou needs a lot of help in its secondary, especially with Gaines and fellow starting corner Randy Ponder gone. That's where Penton should come in handy. After making a significant impact while Gaines was out last year, the coaches have total trust in Penton's on-field abilities and he was tabbed a starter before spring practice even began. Penton was arrested this spring on marijuana charges, so the coaches will make it a point to make sure his maturity level improves, but from a skills standpoint, Penton is primed for a breakout season. And he'll have to in order to help a secondary that still has a lot of work to do.

Also watch out for: Augusta also played in 14 games last year, collecting nine tackles, including three for loss and two sacks. While the Tigers have a pretty solid defensive line coming back, Augusta could be a real force for Mizzou when he's on the field. He should rotate in more along the defensive line and at 6-foot-4, 300 pounds, Augusta is Mizzou's biggest interior mover. Redshirt freshman wide receiver J'Mon Moore has all the tools to get a lot of attention in the Tigers' passing game. He has exceptional speed, is lanky, has great hands, and will have more on his plate with Green-Beckham gone. Defensive ends Charles Harris and Marcus Loud both redshirted last year, but have a chance to get good reps this fall with the departures of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Harris is a converted basketball player with a nice, big frame and good athleticism. Loud resembles starter Markus Golden with the kind of brute power he plays with.

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