"They (Michael Sam and Kony Ealy) were dominant players a year ago. I had some NFL scouts come in and saying, 'Those two guys (Ealy and Sam) are pretty good, but the two behind them (Shane Ray and Markus Golden), shoot, they might be better. Don't tell Kony and Michael I said that." - Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel
As the next in a recent line of all-star defensive linemen to wear the black and gold, Missouri defensive end Shane Ray (#56) hopes he can do what predecessors Sheldon Richardson, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam were unable to do: namely, lead the Tigers to their first-ever SEC championship.
Ray, who is seeing his draft stock soar after a fantastic 2014 campaign, will have his hands full this weekend against the Alabama Crimson Tide offensive line in the SEC Championship game. But Ray has been a consistent performer regardless of competition throughout his career, and the Crimson Tide will conversely have its hands full against the talented and aggressive defensive end.
Who in the Heck is Shane Ray?
The redshirt junior out of Kansas City, MO (Bishop Meige High School) began the season as a likely second day pick in the minds of most NFL Draft prognosticators. But after an outstanding season and a meteoric rise in favor amongst NFL scouts, Ray is being forecast to go as high as the top 10 when the April draft rolls around. Though Ray has enjoyed his first year as a starter in 2014, his numbers are those of a seasoned veteran. The 6'3", 245 pound defensive end has complied 59 tackles (44 solo), 20.5 tackles for loss, five quarterback hurries, one PBU, two forced fumbles and a blocked kick. In addition, his 14 sacks currently ranks second nationally and first in the SEC. His current sack total also shattered Mizzou's previous single-season sack record of 11.5 (held jointly by Sam and Aldon Smith)...and the Tigers have at least one game remaining
The Lombardi Award finalist has, throughout his career, been an impact player for a Mizzou defense that often times flies beneath the radar. In 2013, as a reserve behind Sam and Ealy, Ray had 39 tackles (27 solo), nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries (second-most on the team) and two forced fumbles. Ray also made a pivotal play for the Tigers in their 2013 Cotton Bowl match-up with Oklahoma State, as he scooped a fumble and returned it 73 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Ray saw action in 12 games and accrued 16 tackles (eight solo), three quarterback hurries, 2.5 tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Ray was also a special teams nightmare, using his considerable power and athleticism to great effect for the Tigers' kicking/ return units.
Mizzou defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said from the beginning, the Mizzou staff knew Ray had the potential to be the next great defensive lineman from the Tiger program.
"He was a train-wrecker kind of player. You watch him play in high school, it's like, 'Man, this guy plays really hard. This guy plays with reckless abandon.' That's how he plays. He's got unshakeable confidence."
Like many great defensive players at the collegiate level, Ray not only makes an impact through his own play, but by elevating those around him to play above their heads. Fellow defensive line phenom Markus Golden said it was Ray who helped him evolve into the second most dominant lineman on the Mizzou roster.
"Shane's always trying to learn. I don't even look at him as a teammate. That's a brother. When I first moved to defensive end, that's who taught me a lot as far as all the plays."
While somewhat undersized as a prototypical defensive end in the NFL, Ray plays larger than his frame due to considerable aggressiveness and football savvy. He has devastatingly good technique and is adept at leveraging offensive linemen with momentum and power. Because of his smallish size, Ray has tremendous speed when rushing around end, something that has consistently given larger, plodding SEC linemen trouble. Ray is considered a high-energy player, as he combines mental focus and great conditioning to continue attacking offenses through four quarters.
Aside from his football prowess, Ray is a weight-room freak with measurables that have NFL scouts drooling. The son of former NFL defender Wendell Ray, the younger Ray benches 415 pounds, squats 625 pounds and can bench 225 pounds 28 times. Add that kind of power to Ray's ability to run a 4.4 40 yard dash, and it's easy to see why NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. has said Ray could be a potential number one pick following an outstanding 2014 campaign.
What to expect from Shane Ray against Alabama
While Ray is the dominant force on a solid Mizzou defensive line, he is by no means the only defender capable of wreaking havoc on Alabama's offense. Because of Ray's reputation coming into the game, offensive line coach Mario Cristobal may elect to double-team Ray quite often to keep his explosiveness in check, as even the fleet-footed Bama QB Blake Sims will have trouble eluding a defensive end with the kind of speed Ray brings to the table.
In the past, and at times in the 2014 season, Alabama's tackles have had trouble with smallish, quick defensive ends. While the Tide line has handled such flighty pass rushers in better fashion in 2014, Ray is the kind of athletic playmaker who can cause problems for Alabama's jumbo-sized tackles if technique is lax.
Those double-teams on Ray, however, will come at a cost, as Mizzou fields a nationally-ranked defense and will make plays against an Alabama line that has finally come into its own. While Austin Shepherd has done an excellent job filling in for injured starting left tackle Cameron Robinson in recent weeks, the Bama offensive line does see some drop-off when Robinson is not in the lineup. Such weaknesses can be exploited by Ray and his talented cohorts, so the Crimson Tide line will once again need one of its best performances of the season to hold the Tiger pass rush in check.
While Ray is most known as an aggressive pass rusher, his tackles-for-loss numbers indicate he is also disruptive against the run, particularly in opponents' backfields. Because his quickness allows him to get off of the ball sharply, he is often able to make plays behind the line of scrimmage.
This is something Bama must confront, as the Tide offense is at its best when it stays ahead of the "pitch count" and avoids second-and-long/ third-and-long situations. Keeping Ray at bay will be critical to maintaining a high rate of conversion on third downs, as he is the kind of one-man-wrecking-crew defensive lineman who can make life difficult for Bama's talented tailbacks.
Ray has proven in the past that he is adept at creating turnovers, either through quarterback hurries that yield interceptions, or through forced fumbles. For an Alabama team that has seen plenty of both over the last several weeks, ball security will be key, whether the Tide elects to pass or run, with Ray roaming the field.
While Mizzou is by no stretch the favorite in this game, any observer of the Crimson Tide offense this year has seen the razor's edge between productive execution and three-and-out frustration. Ray is the kind of defender who can turn the former into the latter, and Cristobal and offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin must find a way to effectively corral him without creating opportunities for Mizzou's other playmakers to have an impact.
(Click here to see more on Ray's freakish athleticism, here to see 12 of Ray's sacks from the 2014 season, or here for more film on the crafty defensive end.)