Akial Byers smiled when asked if he was nervous before his appearance at SEC Media Days on Thursday morning.
“I’m not really nervous,” he said. “I have (done) plenty of interviews my years here in Mizzou. Pretty excited, exciting feeling. My body’s tingling.”
Missouri’s defensive tackle was, after all, there by his own choice. Byers’ collegiate career began in 2017, and under normal circumstances, would have ended after this past season. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA granted all athletes another year of eligibility.
Fellow defensive linemen Tre Williams and Markell Utsey decided to spend the final year with Arkansas, transferring over the offseason. Byers has no hard feelings, saying it was just “part of their journey.” He considered testing the waters of the NFL Draft but decided against it. His journey will continue in Columbia for one more season.
He chose to return after talking it over with some of his fellow defensive linemen and finding them to all be on the same page. Defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside and defensive end Chris Turner also exercised their extra years and stayed at MU.
That extra year comes with extra responsibilities, though. Byers wants to be more of a leader than he has before. Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said Byers “leads in his own way.”
Never the most vocal player, last season that just meant working hard and setting an example for his teammates. This year as one of the team’s elder statesmen, he’s taken it upon himself to talk more. The Tigers’ 2021 signing class contains six defensive linemen — some of whom were 14 years old when Byers began college — and the position group will look to improve after a largely forgettable season for the entire Missouri defense last year.
“Everything starts up front, like I said,” Byers said. “If the trenches are weak, then your team’s not gonna go far. So if you’re building that foundation, start laying them bricks in the trenches then you know your team’s gonna go pretty far.”
The Missouri D-line struggled for much of last season. Tennessee running backs Eric Gray and Ty Chandler gashed the Tigers for 195 rushing yards in the second game of the year. Opponents ran for 4.5 yards per attempt. Linemen had 12 sacks all year, six of them coming from All-SEC lineman Trajan Jeffcoat.
Byers recorded 15 total tackles, two for loss.
A lot has changed since. Williams and Utsey are both gone and reunited with former Missouri coach Barry Odom in Arkansas. The Tigers have a different defensive coordinator heading into the 2021 season as veteran NFL coach Steve Wilks spent the spring installing a revamped system. Jethro Franklin came aboard in January as the new defensive line coach after a stint with the Seattle Seahawks.
“He pushes us to get better every day no matter where it’s at: on the field, or just in the weight room,” Byers said of Franklin. “He wants us out there working together, working out, either there’s footwork, hand placement, anything, or even just learning the playbook. And I think that’s a big thing. He teaches us something new every day.”
Byers, too, has undergone changes. He switched his jersey number from 97 to 0, saying in the spring that he wanted a fresh start and a new chapter. He’s comfortable as a run defender but has been working on his pass-rushing recently.
Whether it’s Byers’ budding leadership, Franklin’s new perspective or another reason, the work ethic has diffused throughout the line. Redshirt freshman Johnny Walker Jr., listed as both a linebacker and defensive end, arrived on campus last season weighing 204 pounds. He’s now up to 233; Drinkwitz singled out his effort in the weight room Thursday as something that’s impressed him. Drinkwitz also expects true freshman Mekhi Wingo to see the field immediately.
Byers has noticed the work of Isaiah McGuire, saying the junior “comes to work every day.”
“I believe that we have improved tremendously in areas where we lacked at the past couple years, especially on the D-line,” Byers said. “We've been busting our tail every week, week by week, day by day, just to improve, be the best D-line front in the country, and I truly believe our defense is going to take off and lead Mizzou to a championship.”