While there is more experience at safety than cornerbacks, I'm actually a bit more concerned about this unit. There was more experience here last year too, yet on first glance it seemed most of the communication breakdowns in the secondary could be pinned more on the safeties than CBs. Will that improve in 2009? Let's see.
Kenji Jackson (5'10, 200, Sophomore)
2008: 62 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 PBR
The last of 11 freshmen to have his redshirt torn off in 2008, Kenji (pronounced KEN-juh...I think) Jackson ended up possibly contributing the most, offering an ounce of stability to an increasingly volatile unit. Despite his inexperience, Jackson seemed less likely than Justin Garrett, Hardy Ricks, or Del Howard to miss tackles or be caught out of position. Plus, he's likeable. He seems like a great kid, he doesn't showboat, he's aware of what's going on, he dances in Wal Marts...what's not to like?
The main question remaining for Kenji is upside. How much of it does he have? There were a couple of times where he was just a step away from stopping a big play or, in the case of one of Northwestern's touchdowns in the Alamo Bowl, he jumped just a hair too early to prevent a reception. He wasn't perfect, but what we don't know is how much of his flaws were due to inexperience and how much were due to needing just a bit more athleticism or talent. The former is very fixable; the latter...not so much.
Even if he's already close to maxing out his upside and potential, Kenji is going to be a smart, strong, stabilizing force in the secondary for years to come, and even if he's closer to Harold Piersey than William Moore in the athleticism department, I like the thought of him lining up as the last line of defense for the next three years.
Hardy Ricks (6'0, 190, Senior)
2008: 39 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 QBH
2007: 21 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBR
2006: 40 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBR
Hmm...which of the disappointing seniors should we go with first? We'll start with Hardy Ricks, who has tanatlized Mizzou fans over the years with random great hits and great plays, followed by long disappearances. Ricks played quite a bit as a freshman in 2006's relatively volatile secondary and began the 2007 season starting at CB opposite Darnell Terrell. He is best remembered for sticking Juice Williams in the '07 Illinois game and knocking him out of the game, which indirectly led to a dramatic Illinois near-comeback as Eddie McGee entered the game and got the offense going. Ricks got injured himself early in '07, lost his starting position to Carl Gettis, and ended up moving to safety.
Even when Ricks was starting at CB, he seemed to play more like a safety. His coverage skills aren't impressive, but he's big and physical, he closes fast and hits hard. I was excited about the prospect of RIcks as strong safety, but...it just hasn't really taken yet. Any view of Ricks in 2008 was of Ricks chasing down some free-roaming receiver, trying to prevent a big play from turning into a really big play. It wasn't an encouraging display. Maybe everything clicks in his senior year, but as with Kevin Rutland at CB, I'll feel a little more encouraged if a younger player with more (you guessed it) upside overtakes him.
Del Howard (5'11, 200, Senior)
2008: 41 tackles, 1 PBR
2007: 32 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBR
2006: 9 tackles, 2 INT, 1 TFL
Speaking of tantalizing...Howard began his career by picking off two passes early in his true freshman year at CB. In the 2.5 seasons since then, he has...zero picks. Howard moved to safety as a sophomore and ended up part of the legendary Deltin Garward (Del Howard + Justin Garrett) combination charged with replacing Pig Brown after Piggie was lost for the season.
A meaner way to put that would be, "He was part of the defense's weakest link in 2007 (and 2008)," but I won't put it that way.
Honestly, while I always thought Ricks would make a better safety than corner back, I've never been completely sure why Howard was moved to safety. I assume the coaches know more about a player's everyday strengths and weaknesses than I do, but to me he's always seemed better at reading a WR's intentions than a QB's eyes, if that makes sense. Maybe it's because of the tiny, successful 2006 sample size, but he seems capable of mixing it up one-on-one, but he's always a step too slow in the Cover 2. Either way, at this stage as a senior, he's in the same boat as Ricks--he has some skills to offer, but I'll be much happier if somebody else is starting at FS.
Gilbert Moye (6'2, 210, Sophomore)
Quick impression: "A 4-star recruit from Texas? Who wants to play for Mizzou? Awesome! This guy could be the breakthrough we've been looking for with Texas kids!"
That was me, and a few hundred other Mizzou fans and recruiting nerds upon hearing that Gilbert Moye had committed to Mizzou in mid-December 2006. This guy was a huge cog in the 2007 recruting class.
He's also, apparently, a guy without a position. He was a quarterback in high school, but it was quickly clear that his future was on defense. The coaching staff even considered playing him as a true freshman in 2007. Only...to date, he's proven to be not quite athletic enough to play in the secondary, not quite big enough to play linebacker.
He's also been a trouble case from time to time, getting into a fight with his roommate during his redshirt year and getting suspended for the Alamo Bowl this past December. I never want to predict who might or might not be a transfer possibility because I'm not an insider, I rarely get the full story on incidents (nor should I get them), and it's not fair to speculate about that sort of thing. But if I were to speculate on such a thing, I'd have to lean toward this guy as a potential transfer risk.
That said, he was only a redshirt freshman in 2008. If he does stay, he's got three years to figure things out and find a position, and I really hope he does just that. Lord knows that with this secondary, the opportunity is there if he figures things out (and gets a step faster).
Zaviar Gooden (6'2, 210, RSFr)
If Mizzou had played 11 true freshmen instead of 10, Zaviar Gooden would have probably been #11. He was part of a super-athletic bunch of DB redshirts, and while we have yet to see for sure whether he'll end up a big safety or move to linebacker, reporters and coaches have had many good things to say about this kid. Honestly, I'm more optimistic about the linebackers, so I hope he's fast enough to stay at safety. He has the highest (stop me, please) upside of anybody in the corps of safeties, and I would love it if he were to thrive here. But it's all hearsay with Gooden for now--we'll see what he actually has to offer in the spring.
Jarrell Harrison (6'2, 210, City College of San Francisco)
Joshua Tatum's JUCO teammate, Harrison, who has already signed and will be in Columbia for spring practice, flew under the radar and after signing with UNLV out of high school, he ended up with offers from N.C. State and both Arizona schools before landing with Mizzou.
Harrison's JUCO film (below) shows a guy who hits hard and puts himself in the right position...but you never want to speculate much on high school or JUCO film. Until they do it at the D1 level, you never know for sure what they can do. Either way, Harrison will have every opportunity to step right in and start for Mizzou--lord knows nobody else has called dibs on the starting FS job just yet.
Jasper Simmons (6'1, 210, Hutchinson JUCO)
Another 3-star JUCO recruit, Simmons has been committed to Mizzou long enough that people have forgotten about him a little bit. A Pensacola, FL, product, Simmons' stats show a guy with potential to be a strong, stabilizing force. He breaks up passes, doesn't miss many tackles, and could see the field pretty quickly in 2009. I don't believe he'll be in for the spring, but I could be wrong about that.
T.J. Moe (6'0, 180, St. Louis)
I mentioned him at CB yesterday, but I think his future is at safety. As I mentioned yesterday, this dude is exciting. He has great footwork, speed, and body control, and the only question is whether he grasps all the nooks and crannies of the safety position quickly enough to play as a true freshman.
Donavan Bonner (6'2, 225, Dallas, TX)
Gabe at PowerMizzou is very confident that Bonner is about to become a Mizzou commit. Dude's huge for a safety, and I have to imagine the odds are good that he ends up at linebacker, but he's listed as a safety for now, so he's on this list. Bonner is a current Colorado State commit, and he will be one candidate in the annual "Who's Mizzou's best Texas diamond in the rough?" race. It appears that Kansas State has entered the race for his services, but Mizzou seems (so far) to have the edge.
Joseph Bonugli (5'11, 190, San Antonio, TX)
A new name to surface on the recruiting trail, Bonugli might be visiting Columbia in the next couple of weeks. It's unclear if Rivals' #90 player in the state of Texas has an offer from Mizzou or not--I don't think he does--but clearly the staff is considering him, and clearly Bonugli is considering Mizzou.
2008 vs 2009
William Moore was one of the best (if not the best) safeties we'll ever see at Mizzou, but he was less of a factor in 2008 than 2007, and Mizzou never could find a valuable counterpart for him. Kenji Jackson emerged late in '08, but with Moore playing as much as a third linebacker as a second safety, there was still another safety on the field most times--be it Justin Garrett, Ricks, Howard, whoever--and the search for a playmaker went on and on without success. More candidates enter the fold in 2009, and that can't be a bad thing. If Gooden is ready to step up as a redshirt freshman, or if everything clicks for Moye, or if Harrison or Simmons is ready to roll from Day One, this unit could improve despite the loss of Willy Mo. If not...then, well, Mizzou should have enough offensive potential to outscore guys, right?
2009 Mizzou DBs on the YouTubes
Kenji Jackson in high school...
Kenji stops a fake punt
Gilbert Moye in August 2007