ORLANDO – Shane Ray always knew he could make an impact at Missouri. On reflection, though, even he stands a little amazed at his how quickly his profile has skyrocketed.
Just 4½ months ago, questions loomed about how the Tigers would fill the shoes of two defensive ends that had dominated the SEC — one an All-America, the other a second-round NFL draft pick.
In stepped Ray, a junior who in his first season as a starter broke the school record for sacks (14) and kept the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year trophy in Columbia, Mo. With one more sack in the Citrus Bowl, he'll match the conference record for a single season.
"I just wanted to come out here and make my own footprint," Ray said. "This is crazy, how game after game after game — just being consistent and doing what you're supposed to do, things just kind of fell into place."
With Markus Golden stepping in at the opposite flank, the duo were primary factors in Missouri winning an unlikely second consecutive SEC East crown. Five of the Tigers' last seven opponents were held under 300 yards. Of those five, only one exceeded 135 yards on the ground.
"We play run teams all year in the SEC," Ray said of Minnesota's run-first, run-often scheme. "We just need to come out and be physical."
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover quipped: "On Bowl Selection Sunday, I didn't have any gray hair. And then I started watching their front four."
Ray's speed off the edge and high energy certainly attracted plenty of notice in 2014. He racked up 21 tackles for loss, launching him from unknown status in August to Lombardi and Bednarik award semifinalist. His NFL stock has risen to the point that ESPN draft gurus Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay both consider Ray, at 6-3, 245 pounds, a likely top-five selection if he comes out early.
"He's developed his strength while he's been here, too," said Tigers defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. "So he can play physical at his size, which is pretty abnormal, I would say."
Ray comes from good bloodlines — his father, Wendell, played defensive line at Missouri in the late 1970s, was drafted by the Vikings (1981, fifth round) and later spent three seasons in the USFL. His football family, a rising tradition of MU defensive linemen, also now populate the NFL, highlighted by Justin Smith, Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson. Ray said the Tigers tradition "passes down."
"You absorb the energy and competitiveness," he added. "It turns you into a different kind of animal.
"It's just having the mentality of [being] mean, nobody's going to stop me, this is my field. Seeing guys do that year after year, I'm kind of lucky because you get a blueprint of this is how I need to play."
For Ray, getting back on the field couldn't come soon enough. He was ejected in the second quarter of the SEC title game after a hit on Alabama quarterback Blake Sims drew a flag for targeting. Without him, the Tide broke it open in the second half to win 42-13.
"I'm very excited for this," Ray said. "I have huge passion for this game. I want to play the game hard, fast, physical and with excitement. That's how you should play the game."