Sheldon Richardson chuckled when he found out.
It was November 2012, and Richardson, now a Pro Bowl lineman for the New York Jets, was preparing for what would be some of his final games in a Missouri uniform when he was told that Markus Golden, a teammate and friend from back home in the East St. Louis area, would be moving from linebacker to defensive end.
“Sheldon looked at me and said: ‘Why are you moving to defensive end? Man, you ain’t going to get a lot of playing time there,’” Golden recalls.
Richardson had a point.
After spending his first season at Mizzou almost exclusively on special teams after a year at Hutchinson Community College, Golden was now joining one of the most elite defensive lines in the nation. The group featured future NFL players Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Shane Ray and a slew of other talented linemen. Playing time, as Richardson so intently pointed out, would be hard to come by.
But Golden was never worried about the names ahead of him on the depth chart.
“I looked dead at him and I said ‘Sheldon, I’m Markus Golden, I’m going to get some playing time. You ain’t got to worry about that,’” Golden remembers. “I knew it in my heart that I was just as good as anybody at defensive end … I just had to take the short end of the stick because I was the new guy in the room.”
The move to defensive line transformed Golden’s career. He arrived to the D-line room fifth on the depth chart, and left it two years later as a senior as one of the top pass rushers in the nation.
The journey from linebacker/special teamer to an all-SEC defensive end is what earned Golden a second-round selection by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2015 NFL draft.
It also cemented his status in the long line of Missouri defensive linemen who have made it to the NFL. The same long line that has earned the school the nickname “D-Line Zou,” a nickname Golden will assure you he came up with.
In his final season in Columbia, he and Ray became the natural heirs to D-Line Zou after the departures of Ealy and Sam. That season, Golden and Ray became the first Missouri teammates to record double-digit sacks in the same season, and Golden was named MVP of the Citrus Bowl in his final career game with the Tigers.
After Golden and Ray left for the pros, the legacy of D-Line Zou was passed down once again, this time to Charles Harris.
“With Charles, it’s a little different because he’s like my little brother,” Golden said.
When Harris is selected in the NFL Draft this week, almost certainly somewhere within the first two rounds, he will become the latest member of D-Line Zou to enter the NFL, and the fourth Missouri defensive end drafted within the first two rounds since 2014.
The list of notable Missouri linemen in the pros includes Golden, Sam, Ealy, Ray, Justin Smith, Sean Weatherspoon and Aldon Smith, to name just a few. Their NFL successes serve as validation for the program that has become one of the best producers for defensive line talent in the country.
For Golden and his former teammates, being a part of D-Line Zou is akin to being a member of a fraternity. Golden laughs at the idea of the fraternity being known as Delta Lambda Zeta, but he takes the bond very seriously.
“It means a lot to us,” Golden said. “It’s one of the most important things in my life, to be able to say I’m a part of the D-Line Zou. If you ask anybody who was a part of it, that sat in the meeting rooms and was here for it all, that’s something that you will keep with you for the rest of your life.”
And seeing another member of that group jump to the pros is a point of pride for the former Mizzou defensive linemen, especially Golden. “With Charles, it’s a little different because he’s like my little brother,” Golden said.
The two share a bond with one another, and in many ways, also share a similar unexpected path to stardom.
Harris’ high school career at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy in Kansas City, Missouri, was relatively unheralded. He famously did not have a page on any major recruiting website, and had only Division I offer, from Missouri.
Upon seeing Harris play for the first time, it was evident to former Missouri defensive coordinator and current Missouri State head coach Dave Steckel that the defensive end had only been playing football for two years, but he immediately saw the potential Harris had.
“When we went to check this kid out, we saw a very raw, talented, good person,” Steckel said.
When he arrived at Mizzou, Harris was once again mostly overlooked, and redshirted during his first year in Columbia. But he did so surrounded by a competitive group in the D-line room with several future NFL players in it. Golden credits that competitive environment that pushed everyone in it to be better for helping his own development, and believes it had a major impact on Harris.
“That was the best thing about that room; guys wanted to be great, guys wanted to go break records, they wanted to have double-digit sack and 20 TFLs in one season,” Harris said. “I bet Charles could tell you now, that just from sitting there and being around all of us, it motivated him. You can tell by the way he plays.”
As his time at Missouri progressed, and limited playing time turned into a starting role, Harris blossomed into one of the most dangerous edge rushers in college football. He was named to the all-SEC second team during his sophomore and junior seasons, and found himself on watch lists for several of the top defensive awards in the nation during his final season.
“Because of Charles’ extreme work ethic, I could easily see him becoming a first-round draft pick [early on], because of his hard work,” Steckel said.
Golden recalls discovering Harris’ intense desire to learn from the veterans around him the moment he joined the team. “The thing you noticed right away about Charles was that he was always trying to get better. He was annoying at times, always in your ear, trying to get better and learn from you.”
Steckel, who coached Golden for his entire college career, and Harris for his first two years at Mizzou, sees common traits between the two defensive ends that have helped them get to where they are today. “Stec,” as he’s known by just about anybody who has played for him, believes that their devotion to the game, above any talent they have, is what has propelled the two to success.
“Both of these young men love football, and they’re extremely enthusiastic not just about the game, but about their teammates,” Steckel said. “And lastly, they are relentless workers.”
Work ethic and determination seem to come up often when D-Line Zou gets discussed. It also comes up frequently in conversations about Golden and Harris.
When Golden talks about himself, and discusses why so many players from D-Line Zou go to the NFL, and in particular why Harris is primed to be selected in the early part of the draft, Golden’s answer is confident, yet simple.
“Mizzou D-linemen just play differently than everybody else.”
Edited by Katherine Rosso | firstname.lastname@example.org