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University South Carolina vs University of Missouri

Missouri defensive lineman Kobie Whiteside, center, celebrates a fourth-quarter sack he made against South Carolina earlier this season in Columbia. (David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — The night before Missouri football games, defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside and a collection of teammates gather in a room at the team hotel. They shut off the lights and get on their knees.

“We just start praying,” Whiteside said. “First we thank God for what he’s done for us, then we praise him. This time, Jordan just felt overwhelmed.”

That would be fellow defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, who during the group’s weekly pregame prayer before the Tigers’ last game against South Carolina told his teammate he was ready. Elliott wanted to be baptized.

Whiteside would officiate, but there was a problem. On a Friday night, not long before bed check, where do you find a body of water to submerge a 6-foot-4, 315-pound man? Whiteside was baptized in a lake back in May. That wasn’t an option this time. There was only one choice.

“In the bath tub,” Whiteside said. “He’s too tall, so his legs stuck out the side a little. I’ve never seen anyone get baptized in a tub.”

Whiteside made it work, just like he’s doing along a much-improved Missouri defensive line this season. The junior starter is used to overcoming challenges when it comes to size.

As a high school senior at Alief Taylor in Houston, Whiteside listened and bit his tongue as college recruiters told him he was too short to play defensive tackle at the Power Five conference level. It didn’t matter that Whiteside was a four-year starter for Brian Randle’s powerhouse program and a monster in the weight room. He could bench press 405 pounds and squat 635, but the number that mattered to college coaches was Whiteside’s height. Mizzou lists him as 6-foot-1. That might be generous.

“A couple teams, and I won’t say their name, they said they liked what I was doing but didn’t like my height,” he said. “I wasn’t tall enough.”

So much for the football adage that the low man always wins? In Whiteside’s case, his shorter arms were a concern, too.

“I ain’t going to lie, height does give you some advantages,” he said. “It gives you length. You can lock a guy out. But as long as you can get to (a blocker) and use your leverage, you can win.”

Whiteside is winning his share of matchups this season. As the Tigers (3-1) host Troy (2-2) at 3 p.m. Saturday, Whiteside ranks second among all Southeastern Conference defensive tackles with his team-best three sacks. Two came in MU’s last game, against South Carolina.

“He’s always been a good player, just solid inside,” defensive end Chris Turner said. “But seeing him grow, getting better every week, I love to see it, man. He can get even better.”

Not bad for a two-star recruit who didn’t land his first offer from a Power Five program until a few days before national signing day two years ago.

“If Kobie was two inches taller, he would have been the best player at his position coming out that year,” Randle said. “Texas A&M passed on him because they said he’d get engulfed by those big linemen in the SEC.”

Randle knew better. Whiteside started on his offensive line as a freshman then moved to the defensive line for the next three years and dominated in the middle.

Whiteside was the kind of player who on weekends would ask Randle for keys to the weight room. In his 11 years at Alief Taylor, Randle has coached five players currently in the NFL. Whiteside was stronger than all of them, he said.

“And he has the best work ethic,” Randle said.

But when the college coaches stopped by the school to size up the star linemen, Randle made sure Whitside always wore his cleats. Anything for another couple inches. Whiteside landed offers from New Mexico and Colorado State and committed to the latter — until Missouri came with late interest.

But Barry Odom’s coaches had to be convinced Whiteside’s strengths made up for his one perceived weakness.

“I think you got to trust what you see and really believe in it and have strong conviction,” Odom said. “We saw his highlight video and game film and (decided) that we needed to go see the guy, because he didn’t look very tall. And then you meet him in person and he’s not very tall.”

But the staff gambled on the other qualities: his strength, his effort, his motivation.

“I thought he was very quick-twitched,” Missouri defensive line coach Brick Haley said. “I thought he was strong. He was sturdy. He could play and hold the point. He’s proven to us he can do all those things.”

Whiteside was sold on Mizzou after a campus visit but wasn’t at all lured by the program’s tradition of developing star players and NFL prospects along the defensive line. If Odom’s staff tried the “D-LINE ZOU” sales pitch, it fell flat.

“To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t watch college football,” Whiteside said. “I didn’t know anything about Missouri. The only people I had probably heard about was Alabama.”

He more than heard about Alabama last fall in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Whiteside was one of the few Missouri defenders to get a hand on Heisman Trophy runner-up Tua Tagovailoa when he sacked the quarterback and caused a fumble. Plays like that are why Elliott knows Whiteside’s stature and short arms are overrated.

“Honestly, with his strength, (his height) doesn’t matter,” Elliott said. “He throws people out of the way. It’s nothing to him. I’d just say continue to watch him this whole season.”

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