It wasn't easy for Missouri coach Gary Pinkel to say goodbye to star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Not only was he Mizzou's best player last season, he was a first-round draft pick back in April.
Replacing his production won't be easy, but Pinkel understands it's going to take a committee to right things along the defensive line. And he's pretty pleased with the bodies he has there.
"Guys really stepped up (this spring)," Pinkel said. "I think we have a lot of things in place."
When it comes to the defensive tackle spot, the Tigers don't have another Richardson to work with, but there is talent inside. Junior Matt Hoch really impressed this spring, and has always been a guy with a great motor. He might not have showed up on the stat sheet as much as Richardson, but he knew how to get to and make plays last season. He continued that this spring.
Then there is redshirt freshman Harold Brantley, who came on strong as well at defensive tackle this spring. He has good size at 6-foot-3, 300 pounds and is a very athletic player. He doesn't have any college experience, but Pinkel was pretty excited about the progress Brantley made during the spring.
Lucas Vincent is another tackle to keep an eye on. He played in 12 games last season, but only recorded three tackles. He still has some room to grow up front.
What will help is having two strong ends to work with. Kony Ealy and Michael Sam both had solid seasons last year. Sam led the Tigers with 4.5 sacks, and Ealy recorded 10 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Ealy could really be a special player. He's extremely athletic, and has continued to develop into a better pass-rusher. Not having Richardson there will bring more attention his way, but he should be prepared to take on more this fall.
"He did some great things last year and we're expecting him to do some great things this year," Pinkel said. "We'll just have to see where it goes."
The key for this line is that it has to be able to rotate as much as it did last season. There are bodies to do it, and it will obviously help keep guys fresh. It will also help if the offense generates more production next season, because this line wore down last year, even with its rotation, because it was on the field so much.
Pinkel certainly understands how important it is to have strength up front in the SEC. Right now, he thinks he still has some.
"It's a league where you've got to be good up front," Pinkel said. "The league we came from you had to be the same way, but the thing in is this league is there are more good teams."