It’s time for me to eat some crow.
It’s not often you hear someone in the media say that. But I have to. I mean, I am the guy who wrote this article, suggesting the reign of “D-Line Zou” may be coming to a close. Maybe that’s not the word. Its reign would be postponed. Yeah, that’s more like it.
It seemed logical. A defensive line that loses Markus Golden, Shane Ray, Matt Hoch, Lucas Vincent, Marcus Loud and Harold Brantley in one offseason should not only get worse, but it should be downright awful. That’s seven of the Tigers’ top nine defensive linemen from 2014. How could anyone expect the defensive line to even be average after a mass exodus like that?
And, to be fair, the Tigers’ defensive line hasn’t been as dominant as it was last year. It doesn’t have to be. Kentrell Brothers is making all of the tackles. The cornerbacks are as talented as we’ve seen under head coach Gary Pinkel. But the defensive line has been damn impressive through the first two weeks of the season.
It all starts with Mizzou redshirt sophomore defensive end Charles Harris. Harris had 19 tackles, four tackles-for-loss and two sacks in 14 games last year. He already has 10 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and two sacks in his first two games as a starter in 2015. Let’s put that in perspective, shall we? Harris had four TFL in 347 snaps in 2014 (one every 86 snaps). He has six in 70 snaps this year (one every 11 snaps).
The majority of Harris’ TFL – 4.5, to be exact – came last week against Arkansas State. None of the coaches seemed particularly surprised by his performance.
“His work ethic is the best,” defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. “He’s a very good player right now. And the reason he’s a very good player is because he has been relentless in pushing himself every single day to be the best.”
Harris’ work ethic has become somewhat of an urban legend around the Missouri football program. Coach Kool has a story he shares about the time he came into his office on a Saturday over the summer during Harris’ freshman year. He peeked into the weight room, and there’s Charles working out. On his off day. Just because.
On Monday, which was supposed to be the team’s off day, Harris could once again be seen in the weight room. Coach Pinkel made sure to point that out during his weekly press conference. Harris was even so kind to speak with the media in the middle of his workout before going back into the weight room.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a guy come in as a freshmen and have the work ethic and attitude, and to be able to maintain it the entire time, the way he has,” Kool said. “The last guy that reminded me of him was Ziggy Hood. He does everything right, all the time.”
“Charles has probably developed the most of anyone that I’ve seen since I’ve been here both mentally and physically,” senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “He was this skinny linebacker when I got here.”
“He came in here at 215 pounds,” Pinkel said. “He’s 255, 260 pounds now. He’s got all the intangibles. That’s why he is where he is. And it’s neat to see him getting the production now.”
If you watched Mizzou’s game against Arkansas State, you know that Charles Harris has a basketball background. Most of the coaches will tell you that Harris’ high school football film was pretty mediocre. His basketball film is where he really shined – not necessarily as a player, but his athleticism was apparent. He had that rare explosiveness that could help him develop into Mizzou’s next NFL pass rusher. Even so, it wasn’t a given that Harris would get a scholarship offer. Pete Scantlebury of PowerMizzou wrote an excellent story on Harris’ signing day decision. It was either go to Missouri Western, or sign to play football at Mizzou. It’s not everyday that you see a kid with that kind of an offer list.
“All credit to Andy Hill,” Kool said. “The way we’ve kept our coaching staff together a long time. And we’re not switching defenses every year. So Andy can go out and say ‘this guy looks like a defensive end in our system.”
It’s only been three years since the Tiger coaches decided to offer Charles Harris a scholarship. I’m not sure even the most optimistic coach in the world would have told you back then that Harris could become the player he is today.
“I think he’s got a chance to be an academic All-American, and I have to think he has a chance to be an All-American on the football someday, too,” Kool said. “I really think he’s a special kid in terms of attitude and effort.”
Coach Kool isn’t alone. Coach Pinkel can be somewhat reserved when comparing or projecting his current players. But even Pinkel doesn’t mince words when projecting the type of player that Harris can become.
“He’s got a chance to be a great, great player,” Pinkel said. “There are a lot of players that I wouldn’t say that about because I don’t know if they could emotionally deal with it. But it doesn’t matter what I say. He has his ideas of what he wants to be. And he’s a great team player.”
I was wrong. D-Line Zou isn’t going anywhere. Charles Harris has become the playmaker the Tigers so desparately needed him to be. The kid from Kansas City that Mizzou took a chance on is making the most of his opportunity. And he’s making a fool out of me.