Missouri’s young defensive line has put the whole “age” thing to rest

Barry Odom: “It doesn’t matter how old they are. Age is a number and we shouldn’t make more out of it than it is. You’ve just got to get those 11 guys on the field to play.”
Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Walter Brady (56) attempts to stop Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier (7) on Oct. 10, 2015, during the Mizzou Homecoming game at Faurot Field in Columbia, Mo.

The Tigers had just beaten Connecticut at home. Barry Odom’s defense recorded three sacks and nine tackles for a loss, allowing only six points. They got a timely turnover to win the game and UConn managed to rush for just 77 yards against a defensive line that was made up of freshmen and sophomores.

After that game, the first-year defensive coordinator brought his defense together to talk about a different type of statistic.

“We as a staff talked about, after the third game, (how) you’re not young freshmen anymore,” Odom said. “It’s time to lose that label and go play … It doesn’t matter how old I am. It doesn’t matter how old they are. Age is a number and we shouldn’t make more out of it than it is. You’ve just got to get those 11 guys on the field to play.”

From an outsider’s perspective, the biggest surprise for this year’s 4-2 Missouri team has been the success on the defensive side of the ball. While the offense, plagued with quarterback drama and playmaker issues, has been criticized relentlessly by media and fans, the defense has quietly been one of the best in the nation.

After six games, Missouri ranks 11th in the nation for total defense, allowing just 275.8 yards per game. And it’s done so with a completely revamped defensive line.

After Harold Brantley’s car accident this past summer, question marks surrounded the defensive line unit. Brantley, a junior and undisputed leader of the group, was declared out for the season. The highly touted D-Line Zou quickly became “D-Line Who?”

Big problem, right?

Nope.

“I was concerned we lost Harold because we were going to have to line up a ton of young players,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “We hit on those young players. I thought at the beginning of the season, the linebackers might be the most athletic group we’ve ever had so we could supplement it with those defensive linemen. I feel very fortunate that we’ve hit on these young players that have really helped us.”

Among those young players is Terry Beckner Jr., the five-star recruit out of East St. Louis. The freshman has not shown much trouble adjusting to the Southeastern Conference level of play.

Then there’s Walter Brady, a redshirt freshman who is second in the SEC with six sacks in as many games. Add Charles Harris, who has 11.5 tackles for a loss, and there’s no question the defensive line reloaded instead of rebuilt.

“No, I’m not (surprised with the young group’s production),” Odom said. “We’ve done a good job recruiting. We’ve done a good job in player development. Coach (Craig Kuligowski) has done a great job.”

It seems nobody in the confines of the Tigers’ locker room has been surprised by the young defensive line’s efficiency this year. They rank in the top 25 in rushing yards allowed (112.7 per game), and give up just 2.86 yards per carry.

“There are a bunch of guys who have really stepped up,” senior cornerback Ian Simon said.

He wasn’t surprised either. During summer camp and fall practices, he saw how the young guys penetrated the senior-filled offensive line. He also knew Missouri had Kuligowski, one of the best defensive line coaches in the nation.

Simon has been most impressed with the group’s work ethic. The tight-knit unit has guys like Charles Harris, who works out when he’s not supposed to. They have Terry Beckner Jr., who as a freshman, has showed a kind of maturity most guys his age don’t seem to comprehend.

But then again, age is just a number.

“A lot of young guys don’t have that motor (of getting to the ball),” Simon said. “(The defensive line) has a great understanding of the team concept. Terry’s a great team player… He gets it. A lot of young guys don’t get it.”

Maybe the most impressive aspect of the unit is where they came from. Harris didn’t even think he was going to play college football until he received a last-minute scholarship to Missouri. Brady, an outside linebacker in high school, only received one other scholarship offer to Middle Tennessee State.

Beckner, the most highly touted recruit on Missouri’s team, has seen firsthand the kind of effort needed to succeed at the college level. Extra hours in the gym, giving everything – and more – in practice, they add up. They add up to six sacks in six games. They add up to 11.5 tackles for a loss.

Once you leave high school football, that five-star ranking on ESPN.com means absolutely nothing.

“It’s never off of a player’s potential,” Beckner said. “It’s about the player’s work ethic. You need the work ethic to be a great player. A hard working (player) will beat out a talented player any day.”

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