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COLUMBIA, Mo. – Michael Sam has reason to sing right now.
Missouri's fifth-year defensive end, who tends to stretch his vocal chords during practices to the amusement of teammates, has recorded all six of his sacks this season in the last two games, twice earning Southeastern Conference honors as defensive lineman of the week. He's tied for the most sacks in the SEC and leads the league with 10 tackles for loss.
An undersized lineman at 6-foot-2, 255-pounds, Sam witnessed several peers enjoy the limelight before they headed to the NFL. Now, Sam's starting to pull back the curtain on himself.
"Sean Weatherspoon was here; he was a loud kid himself," defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. "When he was a freshman, it was kind of annoying. Like, 'Who's this guy?' And then by the time he was a senior, 'Well, that's Sean.' And Mike's just the same way. He does bring the energy up. You can kind of know where he is in the building just by opening your ears."
Sam's sacks represented half of the defensive line's total in wins against Arkansas State and Vanderbilt, opponents whom No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0) defeated by an average of 22.5 points. The Tigers already have equaled their win total from 2012, and the line is a primary reason despite the loss of second-team all-SEC tackle Sheldon Richardson to the New York Jets.
The team now enters its game at No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) on a high note, while opposing quarterback Aaron Murray will have to figure out a way to nurse his injury-depleted Bulldogs to a win.
"We know how it is," nose guard Lucas Vincent said. "That's not a good place to be."
Through three games, however, Missouri's picture wasn't as rosy. Coach Gary Pinkel and players deflected questions about the pass rush after only garnering three sacks, all against FCS foe Murray State.
There were bright spots, including interception returns by ends Kony Ealy and Markus Golden, both of whom earned defensive lineman of the week honors, too. And part of the issue could have been attributed to quarterbacks willing to quickly throw the football away. But that was an obvious consolation to players compared to the lack of the sacks.
"All season they've been doing a very good job of pressuring the quarterback," defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. "And I think in the last two weeks, that pressure is now translating into sacks."
Despite their record, the Tigers rank only 11th in the conference in yards allowed, yielding 412.4 per game or 21.7 more than a year ago. They're also allowing 22.4 points, good for fourth in the SEC, but in a year when offense is up across the league.
The team is relying on a rotation of 10 players on the line. Steckel said the depth allows coaches to become more imaginative in their play calling and their alignments.
"I'm sitting on the sideline and watching Vandy playing, and they're looking a little tired out there," said Vincent, the nose guard. "I'm like, 'I'm not that tired at all. Either I'm in really good shape, or this rotation's really coming in clutch.'"
Georgia coach Mark Richt says his team will be prepared for the dual threat of strength and speed that makes the Tigers' defensive line difficult to contain.
"They don't have a bunch of big, old, fat bodies," he said. "They're broad and all that, but they're pretty lean, muscle-mass looking guys. Defensively, they don't do a lot of stuff, but what they do there, they do well."