Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
A couple of days ago we looked at the Missouri offensive line, today we look at another group I think is very strong and being overlooked — the Tiger linebackers. Like the O-line, I think the linebackers could be something of a surprise for many in the Southeastern Conference who think Mizzou could be in over their heads in the SEC. One reason this group is so strong is the presence of a guy many fans probably thought was already gone, but who has been given another year by the NCAA as he recovers from injuries that took what would have been his senior year.
With Henry Josey in dry-dock one of the most exciting players on the team is weak side linebacker Zavier Gooden. Gooden has the speed to be a major difference maker on defense, whether he’s in pass defense or running down a rusher. His 54 solo tackles led the team in 2011. After making all-conference in 2010, he was somehow overlooked for the honor last year. I fully expect him to be all-SEC this season. He makes plays. He tackles, defends passes, forces turnovers, he is a difference maker.
Mizzou linebacker Zaviar Gooden drags Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein to the ground.
Behind Gooden on the weak side is a guy who refuses to be overlooked. Every time you looked up in the Black and Gold game this spring, it seemed we were hearing the name Darvin Ruise. Part of a growing number of Florida natives on the roster, Ruise is like Gooden in that he’s a speed demon and a pest, particularly by disrupting the opponent’s short passing game by breaking up and picking off passes.
In the middle is Will Ebner. Yes, Will Ebner is back! It feels like Ebner’s been around since the days of Phil Bradley, playing as a true freshman in the Tigers’ Cotton Bowl season of 2008. The NCAA ruling giving Ebner another season because of the injury that robbed him of all but one game of what was to be his senior year, and his decision to come back is big news for Missouri fans. Combines all the traits that make a great linebacker. While not quite as speedy as Gooden, he’s not playing in cement shoes, either. He is an incredibly impressive tackler, a guy who just does things the right way, solid in the fundamentals and a fierce hitter. His experience will be a major asset, as well.
The top backup in the middle is another guy who knows how to get to the ball and make a play, junior Donovan Bonner. Bonner’s also a major contributor on special teams, an irreplaceable part of coverage teams because he can get to the ball and make a tackle, often the sort of tackle that makes me very happy I’m up in the press box and safe from that sort of violence. Sophomore Jared Parham’s not far behind and will be contributing soon, as well.
On the strong side is another guy who can deliver a wallop, Andrew Wilson. An all-conference performer who was the defensive MVP of Missouri’s Independence Bowl win, he was also given the “Hammer Award” by his teammates, twice — and it’s not because he likes building houses in his free time. The guys he hits know they’ve been hit. He knows the game and is flexible enough to fill in the for Ebner in the middle last year.
Behind Wilson on the strong side is Kentrell Brothers. Another player coming back from significant injury, Brothers lost his 2011 season to a broken leg. He made a lot happen in spring scrimmages, and he has the ability to be a major contributor in the future. He seemed especially skilled in pass coverage.
Torey Boozer played safety in high school in Texas but is strong enough to be a serious linebacker prospect. Another guy who knows how to make a tackle, also a ball hawk and fine athlete who also lettered in hoops and track at Everman (Texas) High School.
Markus Golden is the reason everything you see above about starters and top reserves should be considered written in pencil. As big a deal as Dorial Green-Beckham and Evan Boehm may be, Golden could be the newcomer who makes the biggest splash right away. The sophomore spent a year at Hutchinson Community College and was a major recruit for Missouri two years back. He had to make a juco detour but his commitment to the school has never wavered, and now that he’s arrived he’s all the more ready, physically and otherwise, to play at this level. A great tackler and disruption machine, he caused a lot of turnovers in Jayhawk Conference play and was a superstar linebacker and running back at Afton High School outside St. Louis.
Two other linebackers fresh out of high school in St. Louis join the Tigers. Parkway North’s Donavin Newsom was one of the top prospects in the country. He made tackles, created turnovers, and to show his athleticism he ran back one pick 102 yards for a touchdown. With 62 tackles and five sacks, he has a nose for the ball and knows how to bring down the guy carrying it.
Michael Scherer from Country Day is another guy who knows how to make a tackle in the run game and defend the tackle; he’s also a hitter who can deliver a serious strike.
From the top-notch talent at the top of this list to solid backups and exciting new additions, linebacker is going to be a plus for the Tigers this year, and as the great majority of predictions for the Tigers seem to be saying, “they have a good offense but not-so-good defense” this may be the key to a team that I think will be more successful in 2012 than a lot of folks realize.