Missouri football has become a defensive factory in the last decade.
Including Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam and Shane Ray, the Tigers churned out a series of all-conference and NFL-caliber defensive linemen throughout the Gary Pinkel era.
Despite two huge losses in recent days, the best may be yet to come for the team’s most renowned position group.
The Tigers’ defensive line room has housed stars of different styles: The interior force (Richardson), the dip-and-rip edge rushers (Smith and Ray), the motor guys (Sam and Ealy), and the all-rounder (Golden).
Despite all the talent, the program has yet to see anything like Charles Harris, a relentless pass-rusher who possesses more versatility and schematic importance than any of those before him.
Defensive “versatility” traditionally indicates positional flexibility. For instance, a defensive back can line up as a boundary cornerback, in the slot or as a safety. Harris provides schematic versatility in addition to the more common positional versatility.
Modern defenses are based on a series of sub-packages, situational defenses that use a combination of skill sets to carry out an assignment. The rise in prominence of spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks forced defensive coaches to re-think their philosophies and run hybrid systems that feature multiple fronts and multiple-gap schemes.
No SEC defense in recent years has been more multiple than Missouri’s. In their 2015 match-up with Florida, the Tigers used nearly every personnel grouping you could imagine before the end of the second quarter: 4-3, 3-4, 4-2-5, 3-3-5, 4-2-6, and a radar defense that featured one down-lineman.
Harris makes a lot of this possible with his individual skill set and adaptability. The significance is not just that he can play on either side as a rush linebacker, or with his hand in the dirt as a defensive end, but where he aligns and how that impacts those around him.
Sheldon Richardson was a disruptive interior force while at Mizzou, demanding double teams on every play. Doubling an interior defender is as simple as committing a center and guard to blocking them.
Double-teaming an edge defender is more difficult, as it requires bringing in an additional offensive lineman, using a tight end, or chipping with a running back and removing an eligible offensive player.
Harris’ ability to move all over the defensive front — he plays on either end, inside, or in a wider alignment — gives him the best of both worlds. He is able to move along the front to find the best possible match-up, as well as cause pre-snap confusion for the offense.
Harris is the best player in the conference at making life easier for those around him and his importance cannot be overstated.
Against the run he is intelligent, powerful at the point-of-attack, disciplined, and able to play as one-gap or two-gap defender.
It’s not often that you find players who can shift all over the defense and fulfill hybrid gap responsibilities. As a pass rusher he’s a star with a rare combination of sudden quickness, power, a non-stop motor and one of college football’s deadliest pass-rush moves, his trademark spin, with which he generated 20 percent of his total pressures in 2015, per ProFootballFocus.
As Missouri enters 2016, with a new era and a new coach, it is fair to argue that they have their least talented roster since they entered the SEC.
No position group has been hit harder than the defensive line.
Harold Brantley, a preseason All-America candidate prior to his devastating car accident in 2015, is academically ineligible. Walter Brady made 7.0 sacks as a true freshman, and he recently got kicked off the team. Add to that a quartet of draft picks in 2014-15 and the Mizzou front has lost a ton of talent.
Furthermore, long-term defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski left for Miami following the departure of Pinkel. Kugligowski has been credited as a key reason why the school has been able to consistently turn 2-star and 3-star recruits into all-conference players.
Yet Harris represents perhaps the most talented and most important defensive player the Tigers have had in years. As long as he’s healthy and performing, head coach Barry Odom and the overhauled defense will have a game-changing weapon.