Defense, as coaches have always said, starts at the front, and the Southeastern Conference has crafted an echelon for starting up front.
In the past decade, the league has produced 90 NFL Draft first-rounders listed as defensive linemen. The draft’s first defensive lineman to be called has come from the SEC on 12 different occasions, beginning with Kentucky’s Bob Gain, who went fifth to the Green Bay Packers in 1951.
The Tigers have been gaining representation at the position recently. With the last pick in the first round of 2009, the Pittsburgh Steelers called Ziggy Hood, who is now listed as the team’s starter at defensive end. In 2010, Aldon Smith was drafted seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
This past season, Smith lined up alongside former Missouri defensive tackle Justin Smith and record 14 sacks, a half shy of an NFL record, and the duo anchored one of the more fearsome units in the league.
But before the unit from this Tiger squad can even begin to dream of the pro limelight, it will have to survive the team’s first dance in the SEC.
This much is true: redshirt junior Sheldon Richardson can handle the spotlight. He’s laid back when he talks. He lets the word spill past his ruffled beard.
“I had, what three sacks last year? I plan on getting 10,” he said after the first day of Missouri’s summer camp on Aug. 2. “I had, like, eight tackle for losses? I plan on getting 15 to 25. That’s how I feel.”
The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Richardson is fine telling reporters he isn’t a fan of the media. It’s a peculiar thing for such a subject to say.
“I mean, I know how to give a speech,” he said. “I’ve had cameras in my face since high school. I’m kind of used to it now.”
Once, Richardson was the land’s consensus No. 1 defensive tackle prospect. Out of Gateway High School in 2009, scouts gushed at how a player so imposing and physically dominant could fuse the athleticism and skill to contribute as a tight end as well.
For two years, he was at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., a junior college that is named for the Sequoiadendron giganteum, the world’s largest trees that grow off the Sierra Nevada Mountains’ slopes.
“I learned a lot there,” Richardson said.
When asked, coach Gary Pinkel constantly reminds that Richardson has completed his first full offseason with the team.
“He has a chance to be an impact player,” Pinkel said. “For the first time since he’s been here he’s got to do the things that our team does to get better. Last summer he missed because he wasn’t enrolled … He missed out winter conditioning, he missed out lifting, our spring football, so all the things that help develop a young player, he’s getting to do.”
Next to Richardson, inside will be redshirt sophomore Matt Hoch, who won the starting job after impressing in the spring as a converted tight end.
“He felt like playing defensive line would be a good move,” position coach Craig Kuligowski said. “He started gaining weight and he said, ‘Do you think it would help the team if I moved to D tackle?’ I said, ‘Yes I do. I want you to.’”
Junior Michael Sam and sophomore Kony Ealy will secure the edge. Ealy has shown flashes of brilliance in camp. He’s asked if the SEC would be a proper platform for a breakout year.
“It’s kind of like molded in the back of my head,” Ealy said. “(But) I don't really pay attention to it. I know they’re human beings just like we’re human beings.”