I have a confession to make.

Last year when linebacker Cale Garrett was lost to a season-ending pectoral injury and reality set in that a team facing a postseason ban wasn’t going to even threaten in the SEC East, I wrote off Mizzou.

That’s not to say I totally stopped paying attention. I was in Athens to watch them get shut out against Georgia, and I still tuned in on a weekly basis to watch the Tigers remind us that scoring points in college football games is harder than it looks. But I wasn’t locked in to see what Mizzou fans became well aware of.

The guy who stepped up in Garrett’s absence, Nick Bolton, is one heck of a player.

I’m sure I’m not alone in being late to the Bolton party. Surely I wasn’t the only person who looked up at season’s end and said, “Mizzou had the No. 16 defense in America?!” Again, these are the types of things you miss when you’re talking about a team with a postseason ban that falls apart in the latter half of the season.

From this day forward, however, I’m done sleeping on Bolton.

Before you remind me that Barry Odom is gone and there’s a (somewhat) new defensive staff in Columbia, well, don’t. I realize that. And I realize that for a player like Bolton who prides himself on being in the right place at the right time, it won’t exactly help him that he’s no longer working with one of the sport’s better defensive minds. It’s not a coincidence that we saw lightly recruited inside linebackers like Garrett and Bolton emerge under Odom’s tutelage (neither was a top-1,000 recruit).

Still, what Bolton does best should translate to any defense. He diagnoses plays immediately, he moves extremely well laterally and he has a nose for the football. Not many sophomore linebackers rack up triple-digit tackles in the SEC. In fact, he had 12 more run stops than any returning SEC player.

And yeah, he can deliver the boom:

There aren’t many linebackers in the country who make plays like that while also defending 7 passes and finishing with multiple interceptions. He and Clemson All-American Isaiah Simmons were the only 2 linebackers in America who earned grades of 80-plus in coverage and against the run in 2019 (via Pro Football Focus).

Versatile, durable, dependable … those are exactly the type of characteristics that a defense in transition needs to build around.

Mizzou ranks No. 62 in percentage of returning production, though it probably feels even worse than that with the loss of Garrett, who was on an All-American pace last year before his injury, and the underrated run-stopper Jordan Elliott. Add in the departure of Odom and it’s fair to say that Bolton’s surroundings are at least somewhat new.

The good news is that he’ll still be working with defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who was retained by Eli Drinkwitz (as was defensive line coach Brick Haley). They won’t try to reinvent the wheel, which means the same instincts that fueled Bolton’s breakout sophomore season should still be on display in 2020.

Walters recognized Bolton’s football IQ when he was an undersized recruit out of Lone Star High School in Texas, where he started for 4 years. In a way, it’s typical Mizzou success story. Bolton’s size (5-11, 228) and speed probably played a part in him getting overlooked by the big in-state schools, but for the Mizzou coaching staff, watching him emerge into a first-team All-SEC player as a sophomore wasn’t a massive shock.

This quote from Walters after Bolton’s SEC Player of the Week performance against West Virginia in Week 2, which featured 3 tackles for loss and 2 interceptions (1 was returned for a touchdown), pretty much set the stage for his coming-out party in 2019 (via STLToday.com):

“You can tell he’s played the game for a long time. It helps he was in a really good program in Texas and everybody knows what Texas high school ball is about and how often they play. And it shows up. He just understands leverage. He understands angles. He understands coverage and where his help is at. And that lends itself to knowing when you can pull the trigger and when you got to stay and take care of responsibility. It was fun to see his hard work and preparation show up on Saturday.”

And now, it appears that preparation will put NFL eyes on him as a draft-eligible junior in the 2021 class. Pro Football Focus had Bolton as the No. 2 draft-eligible linebacker behind only All-American Penn State standout Micah Parsons.

Consider that my way of saying that while some of us admittedly didn’t pay enough attention to Bolton last year, others did.

Surely Mizzou fans saw what he meant to the program, especially after Garrett went down. It’s easy to forget that as frustrating as those final 6 games were, Mizzou only allowed 23 points per contest. That number could have been better had the offense been able to sustain drives at all. It surely would have been far worse without Bolton in the middle of it.

Bolton’s next task as the glue of the defense is avoiding a significant step back in Year 1 of the Drinkwitz era. There’s no guarantee Bolton can do that, despite the fact that he has a legitimate argument to be considered the league’s top returning linebacker.

One thing I am sure of, however, is I’m not sleeping on his worthiness of that title anymore.