COLUMBIA - In January, Michael Sam capped off his final game as a Missouri Tiger by forcing a fumble, which then-sophomore Shane Ray scooped up and returned 73 yards for a win-sealing touchdown. In the moment, it meant the Tigers would win the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma State, 41-31.
But it might have also been a passing of the torch - from Sam and Kony Ealy, both drafted into the NFL, to Ray and Markus Golden, who now rise to the ranks of starting defensive ends on a promising Missouri D-line.
"Each year that we lose a guy, another guy has to step up and to be ready just to take their role and do what they can for the best of the team," Ray said. "The defensive line is reloading again this year, and I don't think we have any worries."
Sam had a breakout year in his senior season. After recording seven total sacks through his junior year, he tallied 11.5 in 2013-14 and was named the Southeastern Conference's co-defensive player of the year.
Those sacks, and that award, catapulted Sam into a seventh-round selection by the St. Louis Rams.
"I definitely think now, with all the first-round draft pick guys that we have, that Mizzou is on a platform, especially for the defensive line, because of pumping those guys out," Ray said. "I just think that if each guy tries to perfect his technique and just plays to the best of their ability, everybody's going to see that, and if a team wants you, then you have a chance to get picked up."
But while Sam proved a big year can extend one's football-playing days, Golden isn't a fan of that idea.
"You can build a future for yourself in one huge season, but I already had a big season," he said. "I'm not a one-season guy. I didn't ever want to come here and put in one season and do it like that. I wanted to come here and be able to come back years from now and people know my name forever. That's what it's about. It's about making history, man, and about winning.
"So yeah, of course, that was good for Mike. I'm glad he was able to do that, but people what people don't understand about Mike, Mike was making plays when I was at Hutchison (Community College) watching him. He had been making plays. "
Golden has already drawn eyes before the Tigers have played a game this season. He was named to the watch lists for Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagusrski Trophy. Both awards are given to best collegiate defensive player, according to the Maxwell Football Club and Football Writers Association of America, respectively.
Golden, a senior, was also named co-captain, a rarity for junior-college transfers at Missouri.
"That's big, man. That's real big," he said. "Especially, with me being at JUCO all them years, I wasn't able to build a relationship with these guys like a lot of these other guys was. But I came in (and) they accepted me. I was able to be myself."
Even without a starting role, Golden led Missouri defensive linemen last year with 65 total tackles, including 6.5 sacks.
That production is noteworthy, not just because it bodes well for Missouri's new front four, but also because it means the backup role is a crucial one.
Luckily for the Tigers, they have young talent stepping into the second-team end positions. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris are expected to back up Golden and Ray and have been mentioned by coach Gary Pinkel as keys to avoiding a D-line dropoff.
"They're developing really well," Ray said. "Charles and Markus, they're both hard workers. They're getting better with their technique every day. They're being more physical. They're running to the ball, and they're embracing everything that a defensive line preaches. Right now, I think they're gonna be ready to play, and they're gonna make a huge impact for us."
The defensive line's talent doesn't end with the ends. Missouri is relying on a big campaign from nose tackle Lucas Vincent in his senior season.
"Lucas has been a guy that played with injuries throughout his career, unfortunately, but this senior year I think he's grasping a consistent hold of what he needs to do," senior linebacker Darvin Ruise said. "He's been consistent, not only in practice, but he's consistent when he's running, he's been consistent with his regiment of eating and everything. I think Lucas has come a long way, and he understands the importance of his senior leadership."
Vincent's backup, sophomore Josh Augusta, has generated more buzz than perhaps any other defensive player this camp.
"I haven't been around a guy who's explosive as Josh," Ruise said, "and to be the size he is - "Big Bear' can move, man, and when he put them paws on you, that's the end."
Both Vincent and Augusta have made physical adjustments this offseason. Vincent dropped 15 pounds, and Augusta cut fat and put on muscle.
Strength and conditioning coach Pat "Ivey and his training staff did a great job this summer with everybody," Ray said. "I put on eight pounds of muscle, and the results are great. We feel good out here. We feel like we're ready to play."
Although, the Missouri defense might need to keep checking the scale if they have too much success this season. Golden said defensive coordinator Dave Steckel's wife, Mary Beth, makes the players a plate of brownies if they get a turnover.
And if you force a fumble and recover it, too, as Golden did against South Carolina?
"I got two of them that time, so I was eating them about a week," he said.
HEAVY DUTY: Not everyone was having success managing their weight. Ruise is struggling to drop five pounds to 235.
What does he have to cut out? Carbs? Sweets?
"I mean, I might have to just cut out my whole life," he said. "I've tried everything to get down."
Is he OK with his weight?
"I feel like everybody in America is OK with my weight except for (the staff)," he said.
JUICED UP: Cornerback Aarion Penton revealed the standings of the cornerbacks' "Juice Board" on Thursday. He currently tops the board, which ranks corners based on who can rack up camp stats like "pass breakups, interceptions, big hits, sacks, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, all of that," according to Penton.
Penton says sophomore John Gibson and junior David Johnson are second and third on the board. E.J. Gaines consistently had the most juice last camp. Gaines was drafted by the Rams after a first-team all-SEC season in 2013. He recently played in his first preseason game, and Penton was able to watch.
"He made a lot of plays. I mean, that's the things he made here at Mizzou," Penton said. "I'm just knowing if I come out and give my all every day and buy into the system, I'll be making those plays I'm making out here at the next level, just like he is."
GONE STREAKING: Mary Beth Steckel's brownies must be delicious, because the Tigers are currently riding a 44-game takeaway streak.
Do the Tigers emphasize extending the streak?
"I'm going to be honest, no," Ruise said.
In fact, Golden thought the streak had ended against Texas A&M last year. (It didn't.)
"It's still going?" he asked.
TRADING PLACES: Junior linebacker Kentrell Brothers got in on the reporting scrum Thursday, borrowing a certain News Tribune reporter's notepad and pen while Ruise was being interviewed.
"How tough of an interviewer is Kentrell Brothers?" another interviewer asked.
"Kentrell is like my little, annoying brother," Ruise answered. "Kentrell is like a gnat at a family barbecue. You know he's gonna be there, but you just prepare yourself for it.
"That's it, man. No other questions?"
"Yeah, I got one," Brothers said, notebook in hand. "How is Kentrell Brothers playing so far this summer? I hear a lot about how Markus Golden and Shane Ray are the big beasts of the defense. Kentrell gets no love. Why do you think that is?"
Ruise, more than game, answered. Brothers tried to squeeze more questions in before team staffers got annoyed and ushered in Golden.
Brothers handed back the notepad.
"I don't know how y'all write all that stuff down."