Justin Smith was the start of what has since become known as “D-Line Zou.” Respect your elders.
Ever wondered what a Mizzou team that was comprised of only Missouri kids would look like? Or wonder how good an only-Texan Mizzou squad would do? Well, you’re in luck! This offseason, the Rock M Masthead is assembling the best team of Mizzou players by state that they graduated high school from. We compiled a list of the significant starters on every team from the year 2000 on and voted on the best players at their position group in order to create three “All-State” Mizzou squads: Team Missouri, Team Texas, and Team USA. Over the next nine weeks you’ll read about these Mizzou Greats that hailed from the respective regions and, hopefully, come away impressed with just how good these fictional teams could actually be.
Easily the toughest vote of the series so far, “D-line Zou” has plenty of arguments for a wide variety of players over the past twenty years. Here’s how we at Rock M Nation saw it.
Mizzou underwent quite the transition period in the late 1990s. Larry Smith probably doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the way he was able to dig Mizzou out of its dark days. If there’s one player who personifies that transition, it’s Justin Smith.
Smith was what Mizzou wanted to become. He was a completely dominant defensive lineman who could single-handily wreck an opposing team’s offensive game plan. He was probably the most dominant Mizzou player of the 1990’s. He’s tied with Russ Washington (1968) as the earliest player ever selected in the NFL Draft (4th overall).
— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) June 4, 2019
That success didn’t come out of nowhere. Smith is a maniacal worker. He was notorious for his work ethic, going so far as to run his first wind sprints at Mizzou with the defensive backs. That’s, umm, not normal, considering Smith was a 225-pound defensive end. It felt a little more normal, though, because Smith reportedly ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at that point. That’s definitely not normal.
Those early workouts were an indicator of things to come as Smith would go on to become Mizzou’s first true freshman in more than a decade to start all 11 games. He *helped Mizzou in 1998 win its first bowl game in 15 years. He won Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. He did basically everything a freshman can do at a place like Mizzou.
And it only got better from there.
Mizzou’s 2x time 1st-team AP All-Big12/SEC last 20 years:
LB Nick Bolton (19-20)
CB EJ Gaines (11, 13)
TE Michael Egnew (10-11)
PK Jeff Wolfert (07-08)
LB Sean Weatherspoon (07-09)
WR Jeremy Maclin (07-08)
TE Chase Coffman (06, 08)
WR Justin Gage (01-02)
DE Justin Smith (99-00)
— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) December 23, 2020
Smith went on to set Mizzou’s all-time single-season sacks record (11). That has since been broken by Aldon Smith (11.5), Michael Sam (11.5) and the current record holder, Shane Ray (14.5). His four sacks against Baylor in 2000 remains tied for the most sacks in a single game by a Mizzou defender in program history. His 22.5 career sacks was the all-time record until Brian Smith broke it in 2006.
Smith’s production locally made him a star nationally. He finished his career as a 2-time All-Big 12 selection and as a first team All-American. His playing style made him a fan favorite. His talent made him a top five NFL Draft pick.
Mizzou has seen its fair share of dominant defensive linemen over the years. I’m not sure we’ll ever see anyone quite like Justin Smith. He’s known for his fierce competitiveness and his freakish size. Let’s not overlook that he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash at 270 pounds at the 2001 NFL Combine.