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Ray reflects on Mizzou career

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Jeff Driskel, Shane Ray

Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel (6) looks for a receiver as Missouri defensive lineman Shane Ray, left, puts on pressure during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Gainesville, Fla., Saturday, Oct. 18, 2014. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

ORLANDO, Fla. • It’s a rite of passage for Missouri seniors to get one last ceremonial hit on a tackling dummy at the team’s final bowl practice. Mizzou’s seniors performed the ritual Tuesday at West Orange High School as junior defensive end Shane Ray watched a tradition he might never perform.

Ray plans to decide after Thursday’s Citrus Bowl against Minnesota if he’ll enter the 2015 draft and pass on his senior season at Mizzou. ESPN draft experts project Ray as a possible top-five pick. The SEC defensive player of the year spoke Tuesday like a player who’s already looking back on his college career.

On the way to a news conference, Ray shared a story with teammate Maty Mauk and Mizzou’s two coordinators that he later told to reporters, albeit a cleaner edition.

During a spring scrimmage early in his career, Ray declined to celebrate with his teammates after an interception. The next day, defensive coordinator Dave Steckel called Ray into his office for a meeting with defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.

“Coach Steck looked me in my eyes,” Ray said, “and — I’ll just make it the PG version — but basically he told me that if I didn’t buy into the program, he said, ‘I don’t care how good you are, you won’t play here.’ … I remember it like it was yesterday. And that was definitely one of the times where I took that in and realized I had to mature and become a better person if I ever wanted to be a part of this football team.”

MIZZOU CHAT: Dave Matter Live at noon

Ray has since developed into Mizzou’s team MVP, a consensus All-American and a player coach Gary Pinkel calls one of the five best competitors he’s ever coached.

Steckel, who after Thursday’s game takes over full-time as Missouri State’s head coach, didn’t recall the meeting with Ray but said the junior began to mature once he trusted Mizzou’s coaches.

“Once Shane really realized that, his ability just took over, and he bought into the program,” Steckel said.

Ray already holds Mizzou’s single-season sack record with 14 and needs three more tackles for loss to tie Justin Smith’s record of 24, set in 2000.

BACKUPS IN THE HUNT

With second-leading receiver Jimmie Hunt out for Thursday after shoulder surgery, offensive coordinator Josh Henson said freshman Nate Brown and senior walk-on Gavin Otte will take over at Hunt’s slot position. They combined for all of five receptions this season.

Brown has “done a really good job and practiced really well the last couple weeks,” Henson said. “Gavin Otte, he’s really a good player. He just hasn’t had a lot of opportunities. He’s practiced extremely well. I thought he had a great practice today. Those guys are going to get in there. So many times it’s about getting an opportunity. This is an opportunity for those guys to step up and make some plays.”

MINNESOTA WORKHORSE

A hamstring injury slowed Minnesota running back David Cobb earlier this season, though he still managed 1,548 rushing yards, which would have led the SEC through the regular season. But in the Big Ten, Cobb played in the shadow of two 2,000-yard rushers, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman. Cobb was the Big Ten’s third-leading rusher coming into bowl season.

More important for the Gophers, their senior back is healthy.

“I think the trainers and strength staff did a great job with me,” Cobb said, “I feel great, better than I have all season.”

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