COLUMBIA, Mo. • Missouri’s depth at defensive end was the revelation of 2013. SEC coaches and players took notice, especially those offensive tackles sent spinning into submission against the likes of Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Shane Ray.
The latter half of that foursome is back for another season. This fall, a reinforced pack of edge rushers flank what could be Mizzou’s deepest position.
Just ask the Tigers’ No. 2 offensive line.
The second-teamers were consistently under attack from the front four during Tuesday’s scrimmage, MU’s first dress rehearsal of the preseason.
On one particular possession, with redshirt freshman quarterback Eddie Printz running the second-team offense, Golden flushed him out of the pocket and tipped his pass in the backfield. Then defensive tackle Harold Brantley blasted through the middle of the line and rushed Printz into an incomplete pass. Next up, nose guard Lucas Vincent slid off his blocker and dropped tailback Tyler Hunt for a 2-yard loss. Then came redshirt freshman defensive end Charles Harris, the line’s latest star-in-the-making, who swooped off the right edge for a sack. Finally, Vincent finished off the drive with a sack.
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Later, in a scrimmage won by the defense 14-12, 330-pound Josh Augusta played volleyball at the line of scrimmage, spiking a Maty Mauk pass out of the sky and into the turf.
By scrimmage’s end, defensive linemen accounted for four sacks, two more tackles behind the line, five pass deflections and a recovered fumble.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel later called his No. 1 offense “erratic.” His defensive line deserves some credit for the disjointed play across the line of scrimmage.
That much center Evan Boehm can appreciate about his counterparts on defense.
“The cool thing about the defensive line is they rotate in and they’re fresh each and every time they come into the game,” he said. “They’re tough and have great technique. That’s why, as offensive linemen, we’re so lucky. We get to face them each and every day. I firmly believe that we’re facing one of the best D-lines in the nation.”
With Ealy and Sam in NFL training camps, there could be concern about Mizzou’s ability to regenerate itself along the defensive line. Tuesday’s scrimmage suggested otherwise. Oh, and the Tigers were missing their most experienced defensive lineman, senior tackle Matt Hoch, out indefinitely with a strained pectoral muscle. The No. 1 defense was missing two other starters in strongside linebacker Donavin Newsom and strong safety Braylon Webb, who are nursing hamstring and shoulder injuries, respectively.
Up front, though, Vincent, Brantley and Augusta did just fine holding their ground in the middle.
“Those guys can play some football,” Golden said. “If you can play, we’re going to get you in there. That’s what we do at Mizzou. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 2 or a 3. If you can play football, we’re going to get you in the rotation.”
Vincent, a senior with nine career starts, continued his breakthrough camp.
“He’s playing at a different level than he’s ever played,” Pinkel said. “We’ve seen that before. We’ve seen Michael Sam come in and play at a different level.”
Mauk responded to two early turnovers with an efficient passing performance. Mauk and tailback Russell Hansbrough mishandled a handoff, leading to a lost fumble. Two plays later, Mauk watched cornerback Kenya Dennis outmuscle receiver Darius White for a pass and make the interception.
Overall, Mauk led the first unit to five scores on 10 possessions, with two touchdowns and three field goals. He completed 16 of 24 passes for 191 yards and a touchdown, a 29-yard jump ball to Jimmie Hunt over Singleton. A 14-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Murphy was waved off when defensive end Marcus Loud was credited with a sack of Mauk, which under the hands-off-the-quarterback scrimmage rules amounted to a tag on the QB’s leg. The offense settled for a field goal from Andrew Baggett, who was three of five.
“I don’t think it was a sack,” Mauk said. “The ref didn’t think it was a sack, but whatever it was, we got the three points and won the period.”
With Murphy playing exclusively in the slot, freshman tailbacks Trevon Walters and Ish Witter got the bulk of the workload in the running game. Walters consistently found running lanes, finishing with a team-high 93 yards on 14 carries. Witter ran 11 times for 55 yards. The rookie backs combined for eight receptions for 57 yards.
Pinkel said Murphy will go back to playing some tailback in practice this week, but Walters, Witter or both will definitely see playing time this season. The Tigers played without No. 2 tailback Morgan Steward, who’s resting a sore hip.
The search for playmaking receivers found some at the tight end position as Sean Culkin and Jason Reese showed they can do more than plant their hand in the dirt and block. They combined for seven catches for 88 yards.
“Obviously, you’ve got to incorporate him some way,” Mauk said, referring to the 6-6 Culkin. “He’s got great hands and athletic ability. We’re going to do whatever we can to get him the ball.”
One lingering unanswered question for the offense remains at quarterback — behind Mauk. Neither backup candidate Corbin Berkstresser (14 of 29, 115 yards) nor Printz (16-29-116), seemed to separate himself from the other.
In focus • Tight ends
Projected starter • Sean Culkin (6-6, 245, so.)
Key backups • Clayton Echard (6-5, 260, jr.), Jason Reese (6-5, 240, rsfr.)
The skinny • Culkin, finally healthy and in position to start, can become the rangy downfield threat the Tigers have missed at the position the last few years. Echard’s more of a point-of-attack blocker, while Reese can line up in the slot and be an impact receiver. Freshman Kendall Blanton, lanky but inviting at 6-7, could emerge as a red-zone threat.
Key stat • 13. Reception total for MU’s tight ends in 26 games the last two seasons.