When Eli Drinkwitz took the job at Missouri, one of the first things he noticed was the defensive line. The Tigers had some serious roster imbalance. There were a whole bunch of seniors, a whole bunch of freshmen and not much in between. The reason was a combination of recruits that didn’t pan out and some that went elsewhere.
So in 2021, which was Drinkwitz’s first full recruiting class, the Tigers signed seven defensive linemen. The sheer numbers improved, but one of the keys was getting players who were ready to play immediately. That’s why Missouri signed a pair of junior college defensive linemen in Daniel Robledo and Realus George.
Both had the added advantage of being December graduates, which meant they could go through spring football with the Tigers.
““Man, it was a great help to me, because I’m coming from a background, from a low-division high school and from a juco,” Robledo said. “Coming in and experiencing the spring and to be able to have mistakes and learn from it now is a big help to my game now. I’m still fixing up some things, but I definitely can say I’ve gotten a lot better.”
“I believe it was a good advantage because it is my first time playing D-Line at this level,” George said. “Having Coach (Steve) WIlks and Coach Jethro (Franklin) being able to teach me the technique and the position through the spring, kind of get familiar with it, it was easier to adjust to it this summer and straight into fall camp.”
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Both are also going through a position change. Robledo had played mostly defensive end before coming to Mizzou and even spent a good deal of the spring there. But the coaches have moved him inside to tackle for fall camp. George’s transition is even more stark: He signed with Miami (FL) in the Class of 2018 as a 245-pound fullback. He is now listed at 278 pounds and playing defensive tackle after Mizzou signed him out of Independence (KS) Community College.
“I was having to lose a lot of weight and get slim, lose about 30 pounds and lose fat, lose weight when I was a freshman,” George said. “Now I’m having to gain weight, gain muscle, stay heavy, just pick up my strength and stay in shape. As far as freshman to now it’s all about eating.”
As in, he gets to. A lot. Even at 278, he’d ideally add weight before the start of the season to play on the interior in the Southeastern Conference. But it’s not like George has never done this before. In fact, he prefers it.
“D-Line is definitely more natural for me,” he said. “It’s more instinct. I played it growing up and I played it in high school. I’m just glad to be back on this side of the ball.”
The extra year of eligibility granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic benefitted Missouri on the defensive line more than anywhere else. Kobie Whiteside, Chris Turner and Akial Byers all took advantage of the extra year to return to Mizzou. Even with the transfers of Tre Williams and Markell Utsey to Arkansas, Missouri has a few more bodies on the line that otherwise would have. So perhaps having Robledo and George in the rotation has gone from an absolute necessity to a preference.
“It’s good that we have some game experience, guys that have game experience,” defensive line coach Jethro Franklin said. “But also let’s not rule out the young guys, because one of those young guys could emerge, who knows. And you never leave those guys out. And everyone’s going to be given an opportunity, and we’ll see what happens.”
Like any player, the junior college imports want to see the field. It might be a little stronger point of emphasis for them simply because they have fewer years available than a freshman coming in.
“They told me day one they wanted me to play,,” Robledo said. “That was one of my biggest things in why I wanted to commit here. I had other schools and they were telling me all these things, telling me they were going to take me out, but I didn’t really care for the attention. I wanted to play. What they told me was they were going to get me here, get me right and get me to play. That’s what I came here for.”
“I can’t really speak to the freshmen, but coming in as a transfer out of juco, another school, I’m definitely looking to play and just help the team win,” George echoed. “Whatever coaches ask me to do that’s what I’m looking forward to do.”
Both players have definitely noticed a difference in the level of play since they’ve been on campus. This is, after all, the SEC.
“With juco O-linemen, I’ve always looked at it like you go to a school and you’ll find two or one guy that’s like really good,” Robledo said. “Then the rest are like, you know. Here, it’s like these guys are pretty good. You have to take it serious. There’s no slacking or leeway on one guy. You have to prepare yourself every move for every guy and know what they’re doing.”
Robledo and George not only have Whiteside and Byers to compete with on the inside, but third-year sophomore Darius Robinson and freshman Mekhi Wingo, who was taking second-team reps during a short scrimmage on Thursday.
“He absolutely has a chance,” Drinkwitz said of Wingo. “He plays with the right kind of chip on his shoulder, leverage, got great speed. He’s making plays, he’s flashing. But, again, it’s about consistency in performance, especially at that position. We’re really deep at the D-Line right now.”
“There’s always going to be competition in camp because we’re always going to try to put the best D-tackles on the field at all times,” Robinson said. “It’s competition but I think we all area able to help each other, learn from each other and get better and come out here every day and compete in camp.”
Missouri has exactly three weeks until the opener to refine the rotation for the Central Michigan game. Until then, George says he’ll maintain the same approach he’s had since he came to college: “Just crush whatever’s in front of me.”