For The Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -Stryker Sulak felt the pressure early on this season, his first as a full-time starter at defensive end for Missouri. Being responsible for helping replace perhaps the best defensive end duo in recent team history can do that.
``Going into the season, we knew we had to step up,'' Sulak said this week as the top-ranked Tigers (11-1, 7-1 Big 12) prepared for the Big 12 championship game against No. 9 Oklahoma (10-2, 6-2).
Missouri lost Brian Smith and Xzavie Jackson to graduation heading into this season. The two combined for 15 1/2 sacks last year.
Their replacements - Sulak and Tommy Chavis - got off to slow starts. Sulak had three sacks through four games, Chavis none.
But as the Missouri defense began to improve, so did the play of its defensive ends. Sulak has three more sacks in Big 12 play, and Chavis has four. Now, Sulak leads all Missouri defensive linemen with 48 tackles, is tied for the team lead with six sacks and has forced four fumbles.
Sulak's surge in conference play is something teammates and coaches always knew was possible. They say it was simply a question of developing self-confidence.
``When you get confidence that you can actually beat guys, you can beat them and beat them and beat them,'' defensive lineman Lorenzo Williams said. ``It's hard to stop a guy like that.''
Sulak said the pressure of replacing Smith, Missouri's all-time sacks leader, and Jackson, as well as the team success Missouri has enjoyed this season, was something he felt early on.
``Being a part of something like this can add a little bit of nerves,'' he said.
His confidence has grown with his improved play. Against Texas Tech on Oct. 20, he returned an interception 38 yards for a touchdown on the game's first series. Against Iowa State on Oct. 27, he had two sacks, and against Kansas State on Nov. 17 he blocked an extra point.
In Missouri's 36-28 win over then-No. 2 Kansas on Nov. 24, Sulak had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and he broke up a pass.
``He's been more consistent,'' defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said. ``He's getting a little better each week and developing into a pretty effective pass rusher.''
Sulak's solid end to the season helped him onto the second team All-Big 12, announced earlier this week.

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