Kony Ealy knew at the end of the game.
Confetti poured down from the rafters of AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, stadium attendants handed him a hat and T-shirt, somewhere the AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic trophy was circulating amongst his teammates and through the fracas Ealy knew his days at Missouri were over.
The junior defensive end announced in the postgame press conference he would skip his senior season for the NFL draft. Flanked by coach Gary Pinkel and half a dozen teammates on the podium, no one looked surprised.
All-American senior defensive end Michael Sam had run out his time at Missouri as graduation neared. So did senior linebacker Andrew Wilson.
The Tiger pass rush, one that for a time led the renown Southeastern Conference in sacks was being torn to bits by departures. Enter Shane Ray and Markus Golden.
Ray, a sophomore, and Golden, a junior, will fill the voids left by Sam and Ealy just as that pair stepped in for NFLers Sheldon Richardson and Zaviar Gooden a year prior.
“When guys leave, like with Sheldon leaving, with Kony and Mike leaving, it’s important for us, the guys that are still here to step up and bring that same level of intensity, same level of play,” Ray said. “This entire spring has just been working to just get better and be a force on defense and be a good leader to the young guys who are looking for people to look up to.”
He and Golden combined for five tackles and two sacks in the Tigers’ Black and Gold spring scrimmage where the “Tiger 2” second team defeated the “Mizzou 1” first team, 21-20.
The only catch: “Mizzou 1” started the game down 14-0.
“This defensive line,” said sophomore center Evan Boehm with a spooky grin. “I firmly believe our offensive line will be so good because of our defensive line.”
In back-to-back possessions in the first quarter, Ray and Golden had five-yard sacks that forced the 2s into three-and-outs. Golden added on a 5-yard tackle for loss on freshman tailback Morgan Steward.
“They’re high-level guys,” Pinkel said of his pass rushers. “They’re like the two we lost.”
That revolving door of ball-hawkers is nothing new to the Mizzou program, Golden said. Between Golden, Sam and Ealy, there was no pecking order of who took shots at the quarterback a year ago.
“We had had three No. 1 guys,” Golden said. “All of us were the same. Really, it’s just the same thing. Nothing changed from last year. Just want to keep going hard and help my team win.”
Richardson, the 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year, said he couldn’t lend any advice to Ray or Golden after such an impressive performance.
“They’re really showing out,” he said.
He hosted Golden on his recruiting trip to Missouri years ago and helped Ray learn the defensive playbook as a freshman. Back then, he said, he told both they they had to master their own style of play.
“No matter what, you’re always going to have your own finesse of the game,” he said. “Learn the playbook and just make it your own. … Do what got you recruited and you should be fine.”
Three years later, Richardson can’t come up with any more pointers. He says Ray and Golden are ready to lead the Tigers in the defense-driven SEC.
“They’re just some of those guys who will be successful like I was,” he said. “One step at a time, one rep at a time. They’re showing they’re stripes right now.”