(David Jenkins photo)
Although the option play that the University of Tennessee ran wanted Missouri defensive lineman Kony Ealy to be left on an island, the former New Madrid County Central standout kept his eyes on the football and immediately chased Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs.
Ealy pressured Dobbs for 10 yards and nearly brought him down before the Vols quarterback threw a pass into the hands of Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines.
"We were sitting in a zone and I honestly don't think the quarterback saw me," said Gaines. "Just dropping back and he kinda threw me some candy -- a welcome back present is what I called it."
It's one of many plays that summed up Mizzou's dominance over Tennessee during their 31-3 win Saturday. It's also a play that shows the importance of Ealy and the role he plays in, arguably, the best defensive line in college football.
"Our D-line is one of the best in the country and we know that," said Gaines, who returned after missing the previous two games with a quad muscle injury. "Anytime our D-line can get back there it helps us and anytime we can make the quarterback hold the ball it helps them. We definitely help each other each play."
It was the first play of a second quarter drive with Missouri ahead 10-0. Gaines ended the interception returning it for 15 yards which set up a 26-yard touchdown pass from Maty Mauk to L'Damian Washington on the very next play. Ealy's pressure and Gaines' pick extended Missouri's NCAA record streak of consecutive games with a takeaway to 39.
"Every game you're going to get the best out of us," Ealy said of his defensive line. "You never know whose going to be that guy, you never know whose going to make the plays. We don't look to just one guy making a play. I think that's what makes our defense special, especially on the defensive line because you have so many guys that can come in and make plays week in and week out."
Ealy finished the game against Tennessee with three tackles which included one tackle for a 1-yard loss.
Ealy, 6-5, 275, is a redshirt junior who is Missouri's starting weakside defensive lineman for the top-ranked rushing defense in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). Missouri has limited conference foes to just 522 yards (104.4 ypg) and three touchdowns on the ground and they're also No. 1 in turnover margin sitting at +11.
So far this season, Ealy has 19 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and one interception which ended with him standing in the end zone against Indiana in the third game of the season. His first interception of his career, along with two more pass break ups and a tackle earned Ealy the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week for Week 4.
The once four-star recruit from NMCC has flourished with the Tigers since he began to see regular playing time as a sophomore last year. Ealy started 10 of Missouri's 12 games and finished last season with 37 tackles. He was ranked third on the team in tackles for loss with 10 and second in pass break ups with seven.
Although he's playing games on Saturday's now, Ealy hasn't forgotten about the people who saw him play on Friday nights.
"Everybody from back home -- friends, family -- everybody's been very supportive and I love everybody from back home and around the region," Ealy said. "I think they're behind us 100 percent and that's what we need."
Ealy has grown from a 6-5, 230-pound senior from NMCC into a 6-5, 275-pound force. He's considerably stronger, faster and more agile after three and a half years at Missouri.
"I give all credit to Coach Ivey and the coaching staff," Ealy said, referring to Missouri's Associate Athletics Director for Athletic Performance Pat Ivey. "The first week I got here I got here a week early and I was already in the weight room. Thank God for him. He gave me the opportunity to develop my body in ways I never thought I would have."
He was also quick to mention those that came before him at his alma mater.
"Back in my hometown, Coach (Arlen) Pixley and Coach (Travis) Day and those guys they worked with me and were getting me ready for the transition in college. It's all the coaches just doing their job and perfecting it. They don't just get your body ready, they get your mind right for the type of things that you're going to face out there."
While being recruited, Rivals.com touted Ealy as the No. 3 player in the state and the nation's No. 11 weakside defensive end prospect in 2009. Ealy was a first team all-state, all-conference, all-region and all-district selection as a senior at NMCC and gathered 104 tackles, 28 tackles for loss, 12.5 sacks and five forced fumbles on defense. He also caught 27 passes for 596 yards and six touchdowns at his tight end position.
Ealy is routinely labeled as one of Missouri's top NFL draft prospects for 2014 and his stock keeps rising with each passing year. But Ealy rarely pays attention to talks of a pro career. His focus is and remains with the Tigers as he tries to help vault Missouri into an SEC title game or, possibly, more.
"I just keep ballin'," Ealy said. "I don't worry about the NFL, I don't worry about media or what people say. I just keep going out and try to help my team any way I can to get a victory. Everything else will handle itself when the time comes."