COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri’s Tre Williams was tired of not playing. So when the Tigers needed a defensive end for a play Oct. 7 at Kentucky, Williams decided he was perfect for the job and put himself in the game.
Bold move, son.
Especially when your position coach is Brick Haley, a fireball of emotion on the Tigers’ sideline. Haley was not amused with his player’s decision — then or now.
Asked Sunday about his reaction to Williams’ stunt last fall, Haley smirked.
“It was probably some pretty harsh words,” he said. “He felt like he was at the point where he could sub in himself. That’s probably never going to happen here, not as long as I’m the defensive line coach. I’ll sub them in and sub them out. We’ll decide who plays and who doesn’t and we’ll decide how much they play. They do that by earning it.”
Over time last fall, Williams began to get snaps the old fashioned way — he earned them — and by season’s end became a regular in Mizzou’s third-down package. This season, as things stand through the first three days of training camp, Williams won’t have to sneak on the field.
With the loss of seniors Marcell Frazier and Jordan Harold, Williams has climbed the depth chart and opened camp as a starter, opposite sophomore Chris Turner.
Without an established veteran at the position, Mizzou turns to Williams and Turner as the primary edge rushers. The Tigers feature more experience and depth at other spots, but not defensive end, where they’ve produced some of the program’s elite players over the years.
“It’s a lot of stress for those young cats, but it’s a hell of a lot more stress for me,” Haley said. “I’ve got to put them out there.”
There are reinforcements on the way. Mizzou signed three high school defensive ends, all of whom could see the field in some capacity this year, especially with the NCAA’s new redshirt rule that allows teams’ players to see action in four games without using a year of eligibility. Missouri also plans to capitalize on its surplus of depth at defensive tackle and play some of those bigger linemen on the edge in certain situations.
“We’re going to be able to mix and match there,” Haley said. “Some guys that are tackles can go outside and play end on first or second down, something like that. We’ll try to build some depth there until the young guys come along.”
For now, Williams returns as the most productive defensive end from last year’s rotation. He notched 20 tackles and three sacks in limited duty in passing situations. Nate Anderson, a junior college transfer, and converted linebacker Franklin Agbasimere will push for playing time, too, though the staff seems intent on getting freshmen Jatorian Hansford, Trajan Jeffcoat and Daniel Parker into the mix — with Williams suddenly in a role to mentor the rookies.
“Taking those guys under my wing has been easy because they want to know what it takes to be an SEC defensive lineman,” said Williams, a former four-star prospect from Columbia’s Rock Bridge High. “They want to know what it takes to get better. They want to know the moves, the technique. With the D-line, there’s no secrets, because I want them to be just as good if not better than me. When I’m tired, someone needs to come in.”
Williams (6-5, 250 pounds), who’s coming off shoulder surgery in April, and Turner (6-4, 250) have shaped their bodies into the prototypical size for their position for a 4-3 system. Hansford (6-4, 225), Jeffcoat (6-3, 220) and Parker (6-4, 245) don’t have the same bulk but offer similar range on the corner of the defensive front.
For nearly a decade, Mizzou has produced all-conference edge rushers who developed into NFL prospects, from Aldon Smith to Kony Ealy, Shane Ray to Markus Golden, Charles Harris to Frazier, now an undrafted rookie with the Cleveland Browns. Frazier and Harold, a former walk-on, started every game at the end of last season, though Haley’s next generation of edge rushers might have more potential.
Ready or not, now it’s their turn.
“I don’t want to sound bad, and I’m not glad (Frazier and Harold are) gone. But I’m glad they’re gone,” Williams said. “It’s not like, yeah, I’m the man now. But I know everything they did to lead the team. I know everything they did to make those plays. I was in sometimes when they made those plays. Now it’s like, ‘Hmm, I guess I can do this now.’ … It’s like the shoes were my size and now I’ve put them on and wearing them.”