By spreading this series out over the course of about six years, we've created demand for it (sort of)! Go us!
For one of the first times in this walkthrough series, we encounter a unit with at least one major unknown. We are pretty sure that Kenji Jackson is going to start at one safety position, but … the other one? It appears as many as five different players -- of all different shapes, sizes and classes -- could stake a claim to the role by the time fall rolls around. It could be a very interesting battle to watch, even though "watching" the battle for a safety position is hard to do. Sometimes safeties can do a very good job just by blending into the scenery and making the plays they’re supposed to make.
Then again, sometimes you can stand out by massacring opposing receivers (or, as was the case earlier this spring, Jerrell Jackson). That’s what we call the Kenji Jackson Approach.
Kenji Jackson (5’10, 195, Sr., Mansfield, TX)
2010: 58.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 1 FF, 3 PBU
2009: 33.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBU
2008: 51.0 tackles, 2 INT, 1 FF, 1 PBU
RPT: A year ago, we wondered if Kenji Jackson was mired in a sophomore slump or if he would just never live up to the expectations we put upon him after a very solid freshman season. One year later, we’re very happy to report it appeared to be no more than a sophomore slump. He wouldn’t register another interception after tallying two in the first two weeks of the season, but he managed to hold on to his starting gig for all 13 games and provide a steadying presence to accompany Jarrell Harrison in the back end. I mention the steadying presence because he now becomes the only returning starter in a defensive backfield that could seriously use some veteran leadership early in 2011.
Bill C.: Follow Kenji Jackson on Twitter (@K_Jack13), and you quickly get the impression that he is a good-hearted guy, focused heavily on faith, class and friends. Watch Kenji Jackson play football, and you quickly get the impression that he has little regard for human life. He plays the role of "enforcer" safety, and he plays it well. Go over the middle, and he’ll make you pay. Go long down the sideline, and you’re soon going to be sprawling into the bench. He’s aggressive, and he’s very effective near the line of scrimmage. Physically, he is somewhat limited -- not the biggest, strongest or fastest -- but he has the Pig Brown safety mentality … which, for Rock M Nation, is about the best compliment somebody can receive.
Matt White (6’0, 180, So., Keller, TX)
2010: 14.0 tackles, 2 PBU
RPT: Matt White made a grand total of one play I remember in his debut season in 2010. Backed up near the Mizzou redzone with the Tigers trying to protect a shutout late against Colorado, Cody Hawkins had a receiver streaking across the middle of the field near the endzone with several steps on the nearest defender. From the time the ball left Hawkins’ hand, White closed the gap and made a fantastic diving ball to swat the ball away. If that play was more indicative of White’s ball skills than it was of Hawkins’ arm, then consider me totally on board.
Bill C.: Like Jackson, Matt White is an undersized-but-seemingly-fearless safety. He got more playing time as the year wore on (and as Jasper Simmons struggled with an acute case of flakiness), and I don’t really think he did anything to dissuade coaches from using him more in the future. He is a much smoother athlete than Jackson, but he appears unafraid to mix things up if the need arises.
Tavon Bolden (6’2, 210, So., Houston, TX)
2010: 11.0 tackles
RPT: Unless my history is fuzzy, it seems like the Mizzou coaching staff much prefers the "safety to linebacker" conversion to the "linebacker to safety" conversion. But I guess it was one they felt confident Tavon Bolden could make.
Bill C.: Look at Tavon Bolden in a uniform, and your first thought is, "WOW, does he look like William Moore." White and Jackson may be undersized, but that is not a problem afflicting Bolden. He appears just athletic enough for the safety position, and … well, it appears he did nothing late last fall or in bowl practice to subtract from his chances of starting.
Kenronte Walker (6’0, 205, Jr., Fayetteville, NC)
RPT: Missouri seems to have had quite a few of "JuCo safety makes good after a year in the program" stories in the Gary Pinkel era, and Walker seems like a perfect candidate to add to that list. He seems to have drawn solid reviews early in Spring ball, and given Missouri’s need for a strong presence other than Kenji Jackson, that’s very welcomed news.
Bill C.: Rarely do you see a D1 athlete do this, but after performing relatively well in practice last August, Walker allegedly asked coaches for a redshirt so he could a) get more accustomed to this level of play, and b) set himself up to become a major player in a diluted field of candidates. Last year, Jarrell Harrison and Jasper Simmons were at or near the top of the depth chart. This year, Jackson is the only entrenched candidate. We’ll see if the gambit pays off for Walker.
Daniel Easterly (6’4, 180, RSFr., Detroit, MI)
RPT: Voted "Most Likely To Be Confused With Jaleel Clark By Announcers Who Scramble For Rosters To See Who Made A Special Teams Tackle." Yeah, the engraved nameplate wraps around the entire trophy. Twice.
Bill C.: Read long enough about Easterly, and you’ll inevitably see the phrase "old school" come up. Easterly is an "old school" safety, a lanky athlete capable of both catching up to long balls with long strides or providing the defense with a big, physical presence. Mizzou fans may see his height and weight and get starry eyes about having another DeMontie Cross to watch. Of course, just about everything you see/read about him is based on nothing but physical dimensions. We’re unclear just how well he can actually play just yet.
Braylon Webb (6’0, 195, RSFr., Gilmer, TX)
Bill C.: Tristen Holt’s slightly less-heralded cousin, Webb is, as far as we know, still very much in the mix in the safety rotation. His relative absence from practice reports shows us, among other things, the difficulty in judging safeties by practice reports. As a safety, the only way you are going to stand out is by either making big hits or getting burned deep. Webb has done neither of those things, it appears, but he could still be making plenty of the plays coaches want him to make. Jarrell Harrison was never a mainstay in the practice reports, but there he was, starting for most of his senior season.
INCOMING: Cortland Browning (6’1, 198, Fr., Tyler, TX, ***)
Bill C.: Browning was one of the commits for Missouri’s Class of 2011, and his visibility seemed to rise as his senior year approached. He is a smooth all-around athlete who apparently has the chops to play either cornerback or safety. We stuck him here because he has a relatively large frame and could grow into a Tavon Bolden type, but don’t be surprised if he ends up on the CB depth chart at one point or another.
INCOMING: Ian Simon (5’11, 180, Fr., Mansfield, TX, ***)
RPT: Simon’s high school coaches didn’t seem to have any reservation about moving him around the football field. They’d drop him down in the box like a linebacker, line him up in "centerfield," or start him in the slot. For that reason, I’m not exactly sure what type of safety Mizzou has in Simon.
2011 vs 2010
There should always be at least a little bit of concern when a certain unit get demonstrably younger from one year to the next, and with the loss of Jarrell Harrison and partial contributor Jasper Simmons, Mizzou’s safeties definitely got younger. But while Harrison was steady, his performance could be duplicated. As long as one of any number of candidates steps up, this unit shouldn’t be seen as much of an albatross around Dave Steckel’s thick neck. But as we always say, until somebody does step up, you can’t guarantee that they will.