COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Last season, Michael Sam and Justin Britt punctuated what had been nice Missouri football careers with breakthrough senior seasons.
Sam, a frequent starter as a sophomore and junior, became the SEC's co-defensive player of the year, led the league in sacks and tackles for loss and became Mizzou's first unanimous All-American since 1960.
Britt, a vagabond along the offensive line his first three years, settled in at left tackle and became one of the SEC's best, earning first-team all-conference honors. The reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks selected him in the second round of the NFL draft and he's in position to be the team's starting right tackle.
Which Missouri player is due for a similar senior-year emergence? Gary Pinkel is betting on Lucas Vincent.
"He's playing at a different level than he's ever played," Pinkel said after Tuesday's scrimmage, when Vincent was the most disruptive lineman from a front four that camped in the backfield all day.
Missouri has developed a reputation for churning out NFL-ready defensive linemen, with eight D-linemen from the Pinkel years currently in NFL training camps. Senior defensive end Markus Golden is widely considered the next elite pro prospect, but for now, Vincent has more immediate goals.
"I want to be All-SEC and All-American," he said.
To get there, Vincent pledged this offseason to improve his conditioning and endurance. That meant shedding a layer from his 6-foot-2 frame. Vincent's playing weight last season hovered between 305 and 310 pounds. Midway through preseason camp he's down to 290.
"Obviously, there's a big difference," he said. "I'm running around more. I'm making more plays. ... I can stay out there more plays. I can run to the ball better."
With the help of his girlfriend, Mizzou softball player Sami Fagan, Vincent has been more disciplined about his diet since the end of last season. He also credits the team's Monday night mental conditioning classes taught by Pat Ivey, the team's strength and conditioning coach who earlier this year earned his doctoral degree in sports psychology. With his college career approaching its twilight, Vincent started listening more closely to those classes.
"This year I really took it to heart and started applying it to stuff," he said. "Football is physical but it's more mental than people know."
"His main stride personally is his mental toughness," defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. "He's reached a different level of mental toughness that's allowed him to really work through anything that happens on the field. He's running to the ball more. He's always been a good football player. But now he's taking the next step."He knows all the eyes are on him."
Including those of Craig Kuligowksi, who is the common thread in all the Pinkel-recruited linemen who have thrived at Mizzou and reached the NFL. Pinkel's longtime defensive line coach watched Vincent parlay a strong first week of practice into a dominant scrimmage on Tuesday. Vincent routinely beat his blocker off the line and made two stops behind the line of scrimmage, including a third-down sack.
"He's had the most productive practices that he's ever had," Kuligowski said. "He was in the right spot before and doing what he was supposed to do, but in terms of actually making the play ... he wasn't quite there. This year, what you're seeing in practice is he's much, much more productive."
Before camp began last week, Vincent spent his final week of freedom with Fagan in her hometown of Dunnellon, Fla., where he sat down with her father and studied footage of every snap he played during spring practices. Kevin Fagan, a defensive end with the San Francisco 49ers from 1987-93 and two-time Super Bowl winner, has become a mentor from afar.
"I owe that man a lot," Vincent said.
While the 2013 Tigers had a wealth of depth and talent at defensive end, the 2014 version appears stocked in the middle. Returning starter Matt Hoch has missed the last week of practices with a strained pectoral muscle, but in Tuesday's scrimmage, sophomores Josh Augusta and Harold Brantley teamed with Vincent to build a wall along the interior. With Kuligowski's preference for lean, quick tackles, depth becomes a necessity in the middle.
"The way we want our defensive line to play, there's a lot of running involved and pursuing," he said. "The guy can't be a big fat guy and do that. Because of that, we want to have smaller guys, leaner guys inside. They're going to take on a lot of double teams and stuff that can wear them down. The more guys we can put in there and the fresher that they are, the better we're all going to be."
Augusta is a notable exception. Dubbed "Big Bear" by some teammates, the 6-4 nose guard weighs 330 pounds -- but reported to camp in what Kuligowski described as the best shape of his life. The same goes for Vincent.
Three of Kuligowski's eight former players now in the NFL entered the draft before their eligibility expired, including Kony Ealy, a second-round pick by Carolina this year.
"I wish we had everybody stay until their senior year," he said. "Because there's no question, everyone's at their best their senior year. The more seniors you got on your team, the better chance you've got of everybody being in the right spot, hustling all the time, showing good leadership."
Sounds like Vincent's start to 2014.
"He's been excellent," Kuligowski said.