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COLUMBIA, Mo. - Shane Ray wants to be better than Michael Sam.
So does Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and the rest of the Missouri defensive line.
That's just the competitive nature of the Tigers' best defensive unit, a group that has pushed Missouri near the top of the nation in a few major categories - sacks, tackles for a loss and rushing yards allowed.
"We're just competitors. Each one of us guys on the defensive line try to out-compete each other every game," Ray, just a sophomore, said. "That's just how it is.Â
"We're trying to see who can bring in the most numbers or who's going to get the sack this weekend. That general way of going about things just makes us step up our level of play each week."
That mentality has paid all kinds of dividends.
Missouri ranks ninth in the country - and first in the Southeastern Conference - with 25 sacks, a total that has already surpassed that 2012 team's 21. The Tigers are tied for seventh in the country with 62 total tackles for a loss, also an SEC-best, as well as sitting at 16th in the land by allowing 111.4 rushing yards, good enough for third in the league.
"We feel like we can get after any quarterback we go up against," Golden said.
"It's not a secret. It's just us going out there and going hard. We feel like we can play with anybody."
Missouri gets the opportunity to play against a true freshman quarterback - Tennessee's Josh Dobbs - when the No. 10 Tigers (7-1, 3-1 SEC) host the Volunteers (4-4, 1-3 SEC) at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN-TV) at Faurot Field.
The success sure starts with Sam, whose 10 sacks (tied with Clemson's Vic Beasley) and 16 tackles for a loss lead the nation.
"You have a guy that does that, you can't help but want to do it yourself," Ray said. "That definitely raises everybody's talent level in the room. Nobody just wants to sit there and let Mike get it all. We're all hungry."
Sam registered Missouri's only two sacks in the 27-24 double-overtime loss against South Carolina last Saturday, meaning the senior defensive end is just two away from breaking the school record for sacks in a single season, a benchmark of 11.5 set by Aldon Smith in 2009.
Not only has Sam's remarkable play earned him recognition from his teammates, the nation has taken notice too. Sam on Tuesday was given a spot on the list of 16 finalists for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to the best defensive player in college football.
It's not just Sam, though, the entire unit has contributed to Missouri's defensive success.
"That defensive front is so competitive," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "I think it starts up front, it always does."
Eight defensive lineman have registered at least one sack for the Tigers this season, while Sam, Ealy (3.5), Ray (3), Golden (2.5) and Josh Augusta (2) have at least a pair.
"It's just hard work and dedication," Ray said. "I have a lot of guys in that room that I'm looking up to - Kony, Michael Sam and Markus - I don't want to be that guy that when he's on the field there's a drop-off in talent. I want to be that guy that when I get on the field they're like, "Oh, 56 is out here, we have to be ready.'"
The unit has put the SEC on notice.
"Of course we think we're the best (defensive line) in the SEC," Golden said. "That's just what we expect from ourselves."
Ealy took it a step further, saying, "I think we have the best defensive line in the nation."
Ray deflected the question, choosing to ignore attaching a superlative for how impressive the unit has been.
"By the end of the year our goal is just to open some eyes to how good the defensive line unit is at the University of Missouri," he said.