COLUMBIA, Mo. • It was always going to be a rebuilding year of sorts along Missouri’s defensive line. The Tigers entered 2015 having to replace Shane Ray and Markus Golden – the most productive tandem of defensive ends in team history and first- and second-round NFL draft picks, respectively. At defensive tackle, the Tigers lost productive veterans Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch.
But there was plenty of promise in reserve, plus the next elite NFL prospect at defensive tackle. Missouri’s strongest position group the last few years figured to get a makeover, but known quantities returned.
Then came the unforeseen offseason purge.
First, sophomore defensive end Marcus Loud, a projected starter, was kicked off the team for breaking team rules.
Then, in June, the bigger blow: Harold Brantley’s path to stardom went off course on Highway 63 when his one-car accident resulted in injuries that will sideline him for the upcoming season. Brantley, a likely preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection, suffered a broken leg, knee ligament damage, broken ribs and a cracked shoulder. He’s expected to make a full recovery but not in time to contribute this fall.
“That’s a big loss,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.
To say the least. Brantley’s injury left the Tigers with just one defensive lineman who’s started a Division I game. Defensive end Charles Harris replaced Golden in the starting lineup against Indiana last year. That’s it for starting experience across the front four.
The three returning players from last year’s rotation — Harris and tackles Josh Augusta and Rickey Hatley — combined for 53 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. Their production represented 15.5 percent of last year’s defensive line tackles, 12.3 percent of the tackles for loss and 7.4 percent of the sacks.
With Brantley’s injury, Hatley and Augusta are the likely starters inside, with sophomore A.J. Logan and freshman Terry Beckner, Jr., the five-star recruit from East St. Louis, the top backups.
Beckner will have to make a quick transition to the SEC from the Southwestern Conference. It goes without saying that depth is a concern here, but there are reasons Beckner was among the most coveted defensive linemen in the country last year. He’d likely be playing this fall at any of the schools on his list of finalists. He chose Mizzou over Florida State, Auburn and Ohio State. At MU, he’ll be counted on to produce, which is why he’s the team’s only freshman position player listed on the depth chart.
“It’s a great opportunity for him,” Pinkel said. “The maturity you’ve got to have to play in this league is difficult to do. … Bottom line is it’s our job to coach them up and get them ready to play.”
On the edge, Harris was Mizzou’s most disruptive rusher during spring practices and could have a breakout season. At the other end position, someone with zero Division I experience will likely start, either a redshirt freshman — Walter Brady is the frontrunner after a productive spring — or Marcell Frazier, a transfer from College of the Siskiyous. Frazier chose Mizzou knowing there’d be likely playing time along the front four.
Then again, under new defensive coordinator Barry Odom, it could be a front three. Odom ran a 3-4 defense the last three seasons as the coordinator at Memphis — mostly out of necessity based on the personnel he inherited — but he could install more three-man fronts or hybrid packages to address the depth and experience shortages.
Whatever Odom plans, the rotation will take shape over the next month as defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski faces one of his biggest challenges in 15 seasons at Missouri.
“If there’s a will there’s a way with (Kuligowski),” center Evan Boehm said, “and I’m sure he’ll find a way.”