2011 Missouri Football Preview: Safeties

Photos via Bill Carter.

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M | Baylor | Texas
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles | Linebackers | Cornerbacks

Missouri enters 2011 with a surprising amount of known factors as almost every position. But the safety position presents one of Missouri’s most glaring unknowns. Kenji Jackson should be solidly entrenched at one safety position, but the other spot was one of the offseason’s bigger mysteries. It appeared as many as five different players – of all different shapes, sizes and classes – could stake a claim to the role by the time fall rolled around. The difficulty in evaluating safety play has made this position battle hard to gauge. Sometimes safeties can perform admirably by just blending into the scenery and making the plays they’re supposed to make. Then again, sometimes you can stand out by massacring opposing receivers, henceforth to be known as "The Kenji Jackson Approach" after his reign of terror last Spring.

#13 Kenji Jackson (5’10, 195, Sr., Mansfield, Texas)

A year ago, Kenji Jackson either A) was mired in a sophomore slump, or B) would just never live up to the expectations put upon him after a solid freshman season. One year later, it appears it was no more than a sophomore slump. Jackson didn’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. That steadying presence becomes all important now that he now assumes the role of the only returning starter in a defensive backfield seriously devoid of veteran leadership in 2011.

On Twitter, Jackson gives off the impression of a good-hearted guy, focused heavily on faith, class and friends. On the field, he gives off 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, as he is neither the biggest, strongest nor fastest. But he has the Pig Brown safety mentality, a mentality adored by Missouri fans.

#17 Matt White (6’0, 180, So., Keller, Texas)

Like Jackson, Matt White is an undersized, but seemingly fearless, safety. He received more playing time as 2010 wore on, and he didn’t appear to do 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. His most memorable play to date came against Colorado. 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 was able to close the gap and make a fantastic diving play to swat the ball away. If that play was more indicative of White’s ball skills than it was of Hawkins’ arm, the coaches’ faith in the former two-star recruit becomes immediately understandable. If the Spring Game is any indication, he could become a prominent factor in the Missouri defensive backfield, especially in nickel sets, and it appears he currently has the edge for the starting job opposite Jackson.

#10 Tavon Bolden (6’2, 210, So., Houston, Texas)

Missouri has had a lot of recent success with the "safety to linebacker" transition, but Bolden has been one of the more rare "linebacker to safety" moves the coaching staff has elected to make. At first glance, his build in uniform bears a striking resemblance to 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 he did nothing late last fall or in bowl practice to subtract from his chances of starting. Just like White, even if he doesn’t earn the starting position, Missouri’s recommitment to the nickel package after the graduation of Andrew Gachkar means that Bolden could see frequent playing time as the fifth defensive back.

#30 Kenronte Walker (6’0, 205, Jr., Fayetteville, N.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 get more accustomed to this level of play, as well as 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.

Missouri seems to have had quite a few of junior college safety success stories in the Gary Pinkel era, and Walker seems like a perfect candidate to add to that list. He drew solid reviews early in the Spring, and given Missouri’s need for a strong safety presence outside of Jackson, it was very welcomed news.

#14 Daniel Easterly (6’4, 180, RS Fr., Detroit, Mich.)

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 eyed about the prospect of watching another version of DeMontie Cross. Easterly was quiet in the best way possible in the Black and Gold Game, seeing quite a bit of playing time, shoring up the second level and finishing third in tackles on the day.

#8 Braylon Webb (6’0, 195, RSFr., Gilmer, Texas)

Tristen Holt’s slightly less-heralded cousin, Webb is right with Easterly in the mix in the safety rotation.  His relative absence from practice reports illustrates, among other things, the difficulty in judging safeties by practice reports.  As a safety, the only way 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 he was one of Missouri’s most dependable contributors throughout his senior season.

INCOMING

#5 Cortland Browning (6’1, 198, Fr., Tyler, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

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. 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 cornerback depth chart at one point or another.

#28 Ernest Payton (6’3, 195, College Station, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

Payton was a late signee whose questions about qualifying may have allowed an absolute gem to drop into Missouri’s lap. As a senior, he finished with 85 tackles (five for loss), three forced fumbles, four interceptions and 12 pass break ups, resulting in his naming as second team All-State in Texas. He’s a long strider with incredible closing speed, as well as a physical style of play and a quick reaction time. Couple those traits with his 6’3" frame, and Payton is one of Missouri’s most intriguing defensive back prospects in years.

#11 Ian Simon (5’11, 180, Fr., Mansfield, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

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. That factors strongly in his favor with a Missouri coaching staff that often rewards flexibility.

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, it’s not out of line to insinuate that his statistical performance can 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 until someone steps up, that lurking uncertainty of a potential weakness will continue to hover over the program. There is a hint of good news, if you want to look at it this way: according to practice reports, both Browning and Payton had some strong moments in fall practices, but the latest word is that both players will redshirt, which suggests that the staff is rather comfortable with the group of upperclassmen above them.

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