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Missouri training camp

Missouri defensive lineman Jordan Harold works against a tackling sled during Missouri football training camp on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016, at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, MO. • Jordan Harold slipped on his favorite red Timberland boots one day last summer knowing he needed them more than ever. The defensive lineman from Ferguson had left his Division II team at Northwest Missouri State and drove to Columbia with his mother hoping to secure a roster spot at Mizzou as a walk-on. The coaches didn’t know he was coming.

An undersized defensive end who barely attracted Division I interest out of McCluer North had something the coaches couldn’t measure in feet and inches.

“Jordan had a relentless faith,” Aleshia Jordan, his mother, said in a phone interview. “As a mother it was a big risk because he was on scholarship at Northwest Missouri State and they have a really good program. I just wanted him to make sure he understood what he was doing.”

As they pulled up to the team facility, the first person they saw in the parking lot was defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. A sign, perhaps.

“We stopped and I said, ‘Mom, that’s Coach Kool right there,’” Harold recalled. “She’s like, ‘Go, get out of the car.’”

Thankfully, Harold was wearing the right shoes. At 6 feet 2, he’s shorter than the prototypical defensive end in the Southeastern Conference, even by walk-on standards. 

“I cheated a little bit and put on some boots to make it seem like I was 6-4,” he said. “I just went up to him, shook his hand like a man and manned up and told him what I was trying to do.”

A year later, Kuligowski is gone — he’s the defensive line coach at the University of Miami — and the walk-on with the red boots is contending for a starting job.

That’s no misprint. Harold played just two games at NWMSU in 2014 but has positioned himself to get playing time on what’s widely considered one of the SEC’s best defensive lines. How did this happen? For one, Mizzou’s depth took an unexpected hit when returning starter Walter Brady was kicked off the team for breaking team rules. That left an open competition for the job opposite preseason All-SEC junior Charles Harris. Marcell Frazier, a junior college transfer who started three games last year, opened preseason camp as the top contender, but he’s since swapped snaps with sophomore Spencer Williams and, yes, Harold, who’s up to 260 pounds.

Missouri coach Barry Odom won’t discriminate against a shorter defender. In 1999, Odom finished his career as MU’s fourth-leading tackler but barely scratched 6 feet.

“From a guy who’s not blessed in the height department I know what he’s saying (about being short), but it’s about body leverage,” Odom said. “It’s about your competitive spirit. It’s about knowing what you’re doing. I like his height.”

Harold’s teammates insist he makes up for his shorter frame with his approach on and off the field. Since he arrived on campus last summer Harold has been Harris’ regular workout partner.

"His strides have been amazing," Harris said. "He’s always had the pass-rush ability. He’s always been strong and stocky, but mentally he’s taken it to a whole other level. He’s probably the smartest person on the D-line in terms of reading keys. He’s going to make great plays this year.”

Told about Harris’ comments Friday, Harold paused and smiled.

“I’m the smartest?” he said. “That makes me feel good. I just try to learn everything."

An honor-roll student and first-team All-Suburban North player at McCluer North, Harold picked up interest from Tennessee-Martin and Ball State and took an unofficial visit to Illinois but settled on the Division II power in Maryville, Mo. He redshirted in 2013, played a couple games in 2014 but wasn’t happy in the small town.

In the summer of 2014 he was chosen to play for the U.S. Under-19 National Team at the International Federation of American Football Championship, an eight-nation tournament in Kuwait. He captained the team and bolstered his faith he could play at the sport’s highest college level.

“He always felt he wanted to be at a bigger school with a bigger football team,” Aleshia said. “He felt he was a Division I player.”

Last summer, Harold made what he calls his “leap of faith” and joined the Tigers as a walk-on during the first week of classes. Harold, an economics major, didn’t appear in any games but made a strong impression on teammates and coaches.

“Kid’s a hard worker, man,” defensive tackle A.J. Logan said. “He comes here as a walk-on and he’s proven he can play with all of us. I think he’s scholarship-worthy."

In the coming weeks, Odom said the staff will decide if Harold and other walk-ons deserve a scholarship. For now, he’s relying on student loans and help from home to pay for tuition, Aleshia said.

For now, that relentless faith pushes him on the field — and up the depth chart. The thought of Harold playing a significant role this season, perhaps as a starter, brought tears to Aleshia’s eyes, she said Friday.

“It’s a vision he’s had for a very long time,” she said. “To see that come to fruition, finally, it would be absolutely amazing. I can’t think of anyone more deserving because he’s seen this happen so many times in his dreams.

“Even if he doesn’t start I’ll be the loudest mom in the stadium cheering him on.”

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