Mizzou’s Bolton primed for strong season
COLUMBIA, Mo. – There’s no Missouri football player with more hype surrounding him this season than Nick Bolton.
The junior middle linebacker and defensive leader was rated by most as the Tigers’ best player in 2019, and that hype has only grown into this fall.
Bolton has received several preseason accolades, most notably being named a second-team preseason All-American this week by the Associated Press. Yet, he’s not focused on those honors.
There’s a job to do in Columbia, and nothing appears to take his focus away from that.
“I feel like I'm a leader of our football team,” Bolton said. “I'm not really a vocal guy, a more by-example guy, just come in early, stay late type of a guy. And so, I just do that, demonstrate it the best way possible each day in practice, off the field, trying to be a great man and a great team member for my teammates.”
Bolton’s had quite the upward trajectory over the last year. Some of the same all-Southeastern Conference and national accolades he’s received in 2020 were bestowed upon Cale Garrett in 2019.
Garrett had an All-American-style season in five games with 43 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks, three interceptions, a fumble recovery and three defensive touchdowns.
Garrett accounted for more touchdowns than anyone not named Larry Rountree (9), Tyler Badie (8), Albert Okwuegbunam (6) and Jonathan Nance (4).
After Garrett’s season-ending injury against Troy, Bolton had to step up his production – and did so – with 107 total tackles, more than double that of any other Tiger.
Bolton also had nine tackles for loss, eight pass break-ups, two interceptions and a sack.
“I learned a lot when Cale went down,” Garrett said. “Just be more intuitive with everything that's going on. There’s a lot of things that I wasn’t seeing, a lot of things that Cale, that I didn't understand that he did to help our football team be better. And so, I had to take on that role. It's just things as little as just encouraging your teammates when they make a bad play ... So, (I’m) just taking last year as a learning step, and adding onto that I feel like I’m a better leader for them.”
Bolton’s progression hasn’t slowed with a new position coach, DJ Smith, who came to Missouri with Eli Drinkwitz after being on his Appalachian State staff.
If anything, having fresh eyes on Bolton might be exactly what he needs in 2020, people that can nitpick what he’s doing after a career season.
“He looks like the guy,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “Nick Bolton is Nick Bolton, and that’s all he needs to be for us. He’s picking up right where he left off last year and the guys behind him are following suit as well.”
With Missouri’s 4-2-5 defensive system not changing, that truly means one linebacker starting spot is up for grabs, with Bolton almost guaranteed to feature for the team.
Tigers such as Chad Bailey, Devin Nicholson and Aubrey Miller are competing for the starting outside linebacker position vacated by Garrett, with Cameron Wilkins and Nicholson taking over as starters for the final seven games of 2019.
Whoever plays beside Bolton will draw comparisons to the Frisco, Texas native from a year ago: an experienced player taking a larger role next to an established starter and one of the best the Tiger have to offer.
“I think he looks good ... the biggest thing with him is just being consistent, being more of a vocal leader and just being that same guy day in and day out,” Smith said of Bolton.
One concern for MU fans was that Bolton would opt out of the 2020 season because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus pandemic that could affect his NFL Draft stock. Bolton is looked at as one of the best professional linebacker prospects in his class.
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons opted out of the Nittany Lions’ season before the Big Ten Conference moved its football season to the spring.
Bolton said he never considered not playing for the Tigers this fall.
“I’ve not had any conversations about opting out,” Bolton said. “I feel like I got more to prove ... I’ve been taking every day, trying to get better.”
“We never even had that conversation,” Smith said of Bolton’s options. “Nick’s a competitor, he’s a grinder.”
Bolton was also named a captain for this season alongside running back Larry Rountree and offensive lineman Case Cook. A fourth captain spot for each game will rotate between different seniors.
“It’s been a pleasure to be a representative of our football team,” Bolton said of being elected captain. “... Just being a voice for our team in our community is important for me. Just trying to steer our guys in the right way so we can play football at a high level.”
Less than three weeks separates Bolton from Missouri’s currently scheduled season opener against No. 3 Alabama.
Plenty of eyes will be on him that day as he tries to stop the Crimson Tide. One thing is for sure: he’ll be integral to how the Tigers perform in 2020.