The blueprint in constructing any effective defense involves, first and foremost, building from the inside out.
After all, a fierce pass rush on the outside goes only so far if opponents are able to move the ball up the gut with ease. To the same point, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, wouldn't it make sense that a defense would need an effective presence in the middle to be successful?
Okay, enough with the philosophical BS.
For the most part, the interior of Missouri's defensive line was solid, if not only slightly above average, last season. Ziggy Hood finished his stellar Tiger career with a first-team All-Big 12 selection, which eventually led to him being taken in the first round of the NFL draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Primarily partnering with Hood at tackle was junior Jaron Baston, who returns as the undisputed leader of the entire defensive line after excelling during his first full season as a starter in 2008.
Together, Hood and Baston formed a stout one-two punch that was pivotal in the Tigers finishing 2008 ranked 31st (124.9) in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game.
Beyond those two, however, several inexperienced underclassmen were in no position to make substantial contributions.
In all, top reserves Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton managed 31 tackles and combined for only two tackles for loss and a nearly non-existent number of quarterback hurries, arguably the two most crucial statistics when evaluating a defensive tackle.
The Tigers will surely miss a player of Hood's ability, but all is far from being lost, even with the disappointing announcement that otherwordly recruit Sheldon Richardson will have to take a two-year detour through junior college before arriving in Columbia.
Mixed up in the shuffle of Hood's departure to the NFL is the fact that Baston will be heading up a deep unit that will feature four or five players who have a bona fide chance of earning significant playing time.
Yes, youth reigns supreme in this group, but these behemoths are led by an inspirational and natural leader who is poised to prove that the interior will be a dangerous area of the field for opponents to tread in 2009. Given time to develop, the players who receive little acclaim for doing the dirty work in the trenches could end up getting their due.
Jaron Baston (6'1", 305 lbs., Sr.): Were it not for the well-exercised vocal chords of linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, Baston (above, No. 96) would be the undisputed emotional leader of the defense. But don't be fooled, the fifth-year senior from Blue Springs, Mo., is prepared to lead in other ways.
The protege of Hood and former Missouri defensive tackle Lorenzo Williams, also currently in the NFL, Baston has spent the past couple seasons learning from some of the best, and is now prepared to take over as the unquestioned leader upfront. Playing in all 14 games as a junior a year ago, Baston recorded 49 tackles and a sack as the team's primary nose tackle. Expect those numbers to be better in 2009.
No longer the student, Baston has the superior lower-body strength and low center of gravity needed to excel along the interior, but he'll have to coax the hidden potential out of his linemates, including four underclassmen, for this unit to be special—even if that means raising his voice once in a while.
Terrell Resonno (6'6", 295 lbs., So.): Resonno is the presumptive pick to start next to Baston at the true defensive tackle position, but that's mainly because no one else really comes to mind. A redshirt sophomore, Resonno played sparingly in 2008, registering 13 tackles and a QB hurry, but he showed improvement as his time on the field increased.
Sporting the frame more befitting of an NFL defensive end, Resonno will give the Tigers a different look along the inside. His long arms will allow him to get a nice push up the middle, as well as cause disruptions in the passing game. For the time being at least, it seems that the defensive tackle position is Resonno's to lose.
Dominique Hamilton (6'6", 290 lbs. So.): With a strong showing during spring ball, Hamilton earned the job of being Baston's backup, but that doesn't mean he'll be taking a knee on the sidelines for much of the season. He received valuable experience in 2008 and should be primed to utilize his gigantic frame as the No. 2 nose guard, which is a position that is crucial to the success of the Tigers' new 4-3 defensive alignment, as it is responsible for holding the heart of the point of attack along the line of scrimmage.
The word on the street is that Hamilton, who was also heavily recruited by Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, has a tremendous upside. He appeared mostly in mop-up duty in 2008, recording 18 tackles and a pass breakup in 13 games as a redshirt freshman. With extensive playing time likely coming his way in 2009, it's time for Hamilton to start flashing that promise.
Like Resonno, Hamilton has been receiving ample reps so far in preseason camp to make an impression, often receiving half of the accolades given by the unit's leader.
“Those two guys have come a long way since they were freshmen,” Baston said after a recent practice. “They both have the body size and the athleticism to be great D-tackles, not just in the Big 12 but in the nation. … And they’re starting to understand the game. Slowly but surely they’re starting to understand how to push themselves in the tough times.”
Note: Following last weekend's scrimmage, Burge is currently listed as the No. 2 nose tackle behind Baston
Photos courtesy of Columbia Daily Tribune/Lincoln Journal-Star
You can find more of my positional breakdowns of the 2009 Missouri Tigers at Examiner.com.