Many college football fans often reference the SEC's perceived superior level of speed and athleticism as the reason that the conference is a cut above every other league in the sport. However, what sometimes seems to get overlooked in the discussion is the SEC’s outstanding play in the trenches.
Year after year, the conference routinely features some of the strongest and most-talented offensive and defensive lines in the country, and this season will be no different.
One team that will have the chance to find out all about how good the line play in the SEC is in 2012 is league newcomer, the Missouri Tigers.
There’s no doubt that with players such as quarterback James Franklin, running back Kendial Lawrence and receivers T.J. Moe, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham, the Tigers have the talent at the offensive skill-positions to compete with new division foes such as Georgia, South Carolina and Florida in the SEC East.
But the question is, will the Tigers be able to handle the bigger and more physical lines that they’ll soon face in their new conference?
The offensive line looks to be in decent shape with tackles Elvis Fisher and Justin Britt and guard Travis Ruth leading the way. However, after the departures of three 2011 starters—defensive end Jacquies Smith and defensive tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno—there are some obvious questions plaguing the defensive front-four.
End Brad Madison and tackle Sheldon Richardson, who combined for 6.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss last year, will be the two experienced veterans of the unit, but the player that could actually end up having the biggest impact up front this season is dangerous edge-rusher Kony Ealy.
Ealy is only a redshirt sophomore, who made just 13 total tackles in 2011, but he’s got the physical makeup to develop into a true breakout star this season.
The 6’5’’, 260-pound former 4-star recruit is cut from the same physical mold as former Missouri standout defensive end Aldon Smith.
Smith put together an eye-opening sophomore performance back in 2010, racking up 48 tackles and six sacks in just nine games of action, which ultimately helped propel him to become the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft.
Just like his talented predecessor, Ealy is the type of tall, well-sculpted and supremely gifted and athletic physical specimen that possesses the combination of explosiveness, power and raw pass-rushing ability to emerge as a dominant difference-maker for Missouri's defense.
Given the growing number of teams employing a 3-4 defensive scheme in today’s NFL, there is now a premium placed on speedy, yet somewhat undersized defensive ends that have the skill-set to stand up and switch to outside linebacker once they reach the pros.
Aldon Smith had no trouble making that transition from end to rush linebacker during his rookie season with the 49ers, as he excelled at the new position, racking up 14 sacks and causing constant havoc in the opposition’s backfield.
Could we possibly see Kony Ealy follow in the same footsteps and eventually develop into a premier NFL prospect as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker just like Smith did?
It’s too early to forecast that kind of future for the first-year starter, but it’s definitely not too early for Missouri fans to start getting excited about the tremendous potential that the young pass-rusher has to offer.
With teams like Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M all on the schedule, Ealy will face plenty of stiff competition and strong offensive linemen this season, and it should be very interesting to see how he fares in 2012.
We may not be able to call Kony Ealy the next Aldon Smith just yet, but if he plays up to his potential and continues to develop, Ealy has a great chance to become Missouri’s next elite game-changing defensive end.
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