More than any other position, including quarterback and receiver, defensive end has the potential to lay claim to the most eye-popping talent on the Missouri team in 2009.
As head coach Gary Pinkel has raved about his defense's increased athleticism, he has been noticeably biased about those who occupy the bookends along the defensive line—a unit that could end up being a tremendous luxury considering the offenses the Tigers will face within their own conference.
Many were quick to blame the Tigers' suspect secondary for last season's defensive struggles, myself included.
But the ugly pass defense numbers could just as easily be attributed to the lack of a consistent pass rush, especially off the edge. Missouri defensive ends generated a total of 17.5 sacks in 2008, but 13.5 of those came from all-conference performer Stryker Sulak (10.5) and Tommy Chavis, both of whom are now gone.
Replacing a player of Sulak's caliber won't be easy, and his production likely won't be amassed by one player alone. Nonetheless, potential abounds at the position, with five sophomores and redshirt freshmen highlighting the preseason depth chart.
And while spring workouts came and went without much of a change to the projected starting duo, a number of unexpected candidates surged to the forefront of the discussion, earning at least a minimal role in the defensive rotation in the process.
Granted, playing defense at any position on any team can be a daunting task in the Big 12, and this group is bound to run into some periods of inconsistency, but what has developed into a turnstile of depth at the defensive end position has people anxious to see what kind of terror the Tigers can inflict on opposing quarterbacks.
Jacquies Smith was an impact player as a true freshman in 2008
Jacquies Smith (6'4", 240 lbs., So.): Recruited as a "tweener" out of Dallas' South Oak Cliff High School in 2008, Smith proved as a true freshman he is every bit as fast and physical off the edge as your everyday pass rusher.
Smith appeared in 12 games last season, which will certainly serve him well as he entered fall practice as one of Missouri's starting defensive ends, most likely on the weak side. His main job now will be making everyone forget about the departed Sulak, who racked up All-Big 12 honors on three occasions prior to getting drafted by the Oakland Raiders in April.
Still a tad undersized by modern standards, Smith needed to add some bulk to his frame in the offseason without sacrificing his biggest asset: his speed. He got pushed around by more physical offensive tackles (i.e. those from Oklahoma and Texas), but Smith will become a special player the moment his maturity catches up with his physical development, which could very well happen in 2009, leaving defensive coordinator Dave Steckel the very nice problem of deciding whether to keep Smith on the field for every play.
Brian Coulter (6'4", 255 lbs., Sr.): The most likely candidate to play opposite Smith, Coulter will have his chance to justify all the expectations and fanfare that followed him from Mississippi, where he transferred from Pearl River Community College last summer after losing his scholarship to Florida State because of NCAA sanctions.
It was around this time last year that the confident Coulter told the press he had absolutely no problem being compared to Justin Smith, undoubtedly the best defensive end in MU history. But 2008 transpired with Coulter spending a majority of the season backing up Chavis, as he recorded just 29 tackles and three sacks in a limited role that was only made worse by a number of injuries, one of which was a torn labrum in his left shoulder that kept him out of practice this spring.
Presumably given time to recover from his injuries and get acclimated to BCS-caliber football, Coulter is expected to be one of the major stars on Missouri's defense in 2009. During his brief time on the field last season, Coulter pulled a Jekyll-and-Hyde act, often disappearing for plays on end before emerging to send the opposing quarterback down to the turf in a heap.
A player with prototypical size and quickness, Coulter can be as good as he wants to be, but the extent of his impact will ultimately be a matter of whether he decides to show up on every down.
Aldon Smith (6'5", 245 lbs., RS Fr.): The Raytown, Mo., native is yet to play a down of college football, but the other Smith is expected to crack the deep defensive end rotation thanks to an impressive spring audition during which he proved to be unblockable at times.
Brian Coulter (left) and Aldon Smith form a scary duo (St. Louis P-D)
Smith spent his redshirt season in the weight room, and it shows. Reportedly a physical specimen whose physique must be witnessed in person to be appreciated, Smith definitely looks the part of a lightning-quick end. However, like the other fresh-faced members of the defensive line, Smith will encounter some growing pains, but, if nothing else, the raw talent he displayed this spring has given the coaching staff reason to drool over the problems he could present for opposing offenses this season.
Fast forward now to preseason camp, where Smith is continuing to wreak havoc by making frequent appearances in the offensive backfield during 11-on-11 passing drills, all the while proving to be a pest for Blaine Gabbert and the rest of Missouri's young quarterbacks.
The following portion of this article was included in its original release at Examiner.com on July 20. Since then, Thomas has been deemed academically ineligible and will enroll at a junior college to improve his grades. If he qualifies, he figures to be a player to watch on MU's defense in 2010.
Derrion Thomas (6'3", 200 lbs.): The verdict on Thomas is not yet out, but that's because he's currently enrolled at a Kansas City community college hoping to land the eligibility that will enable him to walk onto the football team for the 2009 season. But if recent reports are any indication, Thomas, who is the son of former Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Derrick Thomas, will be on campus this fall, further enhancing the quality and depth on the Missouri defense.
It's still a bit unclear as to where Thomas will play in college, assuming he qualifies academically, but MU's coaching staff has initially projected him to be an outside linebacker. An avid swimmer, Thomas spent most of his time at Blue Springs South High School in the pool chasing state records rather than bringing down quarterbacks on the field.
It wasn't until his junior year that Thomas picked up a helmet, but his natural athletic ability quickly took over. During his senior season, his first as a starter, Thomas earned all-state honors with 11 sacks, including five in Blue Springs' Class 6 state championship win over Rockhurst.
Don't expect to see too much of Thomas in 2009, as his wiry frame will require some needed weight before he's ready to assume the role of linebacker, defensive end, or even a combination of both at the major college level. Nonetheless, I thought it would be worthwhile to throw his name in the hat anyway.
If he does qualify academically, it's unknown whether Thomas will forgo the beginning of fall workouts. He is expected to give his late father's Hall of Fame introduction speech on Aug. 8, two days after the Tigers break camp.
Reserves: Marcus Malbrough (6'5", 225 lbs., Fr.), Brad Madison (6'5", 255 lbs., Fr.), Mark Ellis (6'2", 270 lbs., Sr)*, Mike Taylor (6'6", 260 lbs., Jr.)** Brayden Burnett (6'3", 240 lbs., Fr.), Michael Sam (6'2", 240 lbs., Fr.)
* Ellis won an NCAA heavyweight championship as part of the MU wrestling team and is playing football for the first time in four years
**Taylor is attempting to make the team as a walk-on
Further coverage of the Missouri Tigers, including more positional breakdowns, can be found at Examiner.com.