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October 10, 2013
Missouri came into the season with most thinking defensive end was its deepest position. Kony Ealy has NFL measurables and potential and many were excited about the athleticism of Shane Ray and Markus Golden. But five weeks into the schedule, the most productive member of the group has been the one who generates the least talk.
Senior Michael Sam has piled up six sacks in Missouri's last two games and is tied for the Southeastern Conference lead in that category. He has been named the conference's defensive lineman of the week each of the last two weeks.
"He's taken it to a new level," Ealy said. "He's kind of carrying the defense right now you could say."
"I think right now he's not playing steady, I think he's playing at a very high level. That's the difference now," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's had three sacks back to back games, which is very difficult to do, I don't care who you're playing. It's kind of interesting how kids mature and all of a sudden they can go do a different level. He's playing at a different level right now."
Of course, perhaps there is a reason for Sam's relative obscurity. He generates little talk because he talks little. Sam hasn't done interviews during the season, ostensibly because he has scheduling conflicts during Mizzou's Monday media day sessions.
But his teammates say the senior from Hitchcock, Texas is far from quiet.
"Actually, Michael's our comedian. He gets us through practice," Ray said. "Mike Sam is a singer. He creates his remixes of any song and he'll sing it repeatedly. You're going to hear him say catch phrases over and over."
"He is a funny guy," Golden said. "No matter what kind of day I'm having, being around him puts me in a better mood."
Not everyone tabs Sam as a successful comedian.
"Other than when he's singing, yeah," Ealy said. "Not amusing. I enjoy some of his songs. Other ones, I don't know."
Asked who the defense's top comedian was, coordinator Dave Steckel said, without a hint of a smile, "I am."
While Sam is currently generating the headlines, all four defensive ends have contributed heavily to Mizzou's unbeaten start. Golden was named the SEC defensive lineman of the week after an interception return for a touchdown against Toledo. Ealy grabbed the same honor for his pick six against Indiana. Ray has 16 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage.
And on any given down, the opposing offensive line has no idea where it will find any one of them. The Tigers have used multiple formations up front. Golden and Ealy both have the size to line up in the middle of a four-man front, a formation Mizzou dubbed "Candy" when it debuted a couple of seasons ago with Aldon Smith in the middle. The Tigers have also used a three-man line frequently in the last three weeks after the formation helped flummox Indiana during the second half of a 45-28 Tiger win.
"The more kids can do the more you can call and the less they can do the less you can call," Steckel said. "With their athleticism, it gives you a lot to do as a playcaller and it gives you a lot to do with your imagination as far as fronts and alignments and assignments."
"With our D-line, you're gonna get something different from each one of us," Ray said. "We're not all the same style of players. We're versatile, we can all do different things. With the packages that the coaches are putting us in, it's making us available to make plays."
"I've seen it, actually on Saturday (against Vanderbilt), I felt they were pretty confused and had to call a couple timeouts because we were mixing up the fronts," Golden said.
But it is Sam leading the way with six sacks, ten tackles for a loss and 22 total stops. All three figures lead Missouri's defensive linemen through five games. On any given day, you can hear Sam's singing voice ringing loudly throughout the football complex or across the practice field. Just don't expect to hear him talk. Right now, it's his play that speaks volumes.