If you think about it, perhaps no single unit has more clearly defined the competency of a Missouri defense in recent years than the safeties.
2007: Pig Brown and William Moore dominate.
2008: Justin Garrett and Del Howard struggle.
2009: Kenji Jackson suffers through a sophomore slump (and nobody compensates).
2010: Jackson and Jerrell Harrison gel.
2011: A rotating cast of characters occasionally struggles next to Jackson.
The 2007 and 2010 defenses were exciting and (in 2010’s case, especially) effective. The 2008 and 2009 defenses were disappointing. The 2011 defense eventually came around, but in fits and starts (as Matt White, Braylon Webb, Kenronte Walker and others each got their turn).
In 2012, Jackson, perhaps one of the more underrated Tiger defenders in recent history, departs, leaving behind a host of players with experience, potential … and little evidence of developed potential. We can worry about James Franklin (for good reason), we can mourn Henry Josey (for excellent reason), we can fear the depth at defensive tackle … but it is possible that no single issue will have a greater effect on Missouri’s success in 2012 than the uncovering of a solid pair of safeties. Struggles in the Black & Gold Game belied what was apparently steady progress through the spring; while not without hope, this is still one of the team's biggest question marks.
Kenronte Walker (6’0, 210, Sr., Fayetteville, NC)
2011: 33.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL (1 sack), 1 FR
Bill C.: Because depth was so strong in 2010, Walker, a junior college transfer, asked the coaching staff for a redshirt so he could maximize his contributions in black and gold. By late-2011, that began to look like quite a smart decision. Walker began to develop into a rock solid safety, especially in terms of run support. With his size, he could become Jarrell Harrison-esque safety-OLB hybrid if need be, though, in departing the Big 12, Missouri’s need for nickel backs and pass-centric outside linebackers decreases a little. (Still, we should not overstate the fact that the SEC has lesser passing offenses than the Big 12. Tennessee still passes a lot. So does Texas A&M. And Georgia. And lord knows all of Alabama’s receivers were either four- or five-star recruits.)
Regardless, Walker is one of the most important players on this year’s team, and for a number of reasons:
1. He is the only senior in this unit. Hell, he and Kip Edwards are the only two seniors in the secondary, period.
2. He was constantly referred to as the most competent and proficient safety through most of 2012 spring practices.
"On the [87-yard] touchdown, [Jimmie Hunt] showed nice hands, extending to catch a high pass even though he knew Kenronte Walker was bearing down on him. Walker missed, and Hunt was left alone to sprint the final 50 yards or so for a score."
In Kenji Jackson’s absence, Missouri needs a new rock at safety. If it isn’t Walker, I’m not sure who it is.
The Beef: Walker had a decent season, and one that I thought got better as the year went on. This position is going to be so interesting moving forward as so often they were relied upon for pass defense, and now I would think they will become increasingly important in the run defense. Walker has one more season, and it will be very interesting to see if he does it as a starter or backup.
Braylon Webb (6’0, 210, So., Gilmer, TX)
2011: 28.5 tackles, 1 FR
Bill C.: Ideally, I want safeties like Pig Brown and William Moore, big-time playmakers who can both serve as enforcers and prevent big plays. But in the absence of that, I just want someone who can prevent big plays. Of all of last year’s safeties not named Kenji, Webb intrigued me the most in this regard. He is probably the fastest of all the safeties we’ve seen, and he seemed to do a lovely job of cleaning up messes and allowing the defense to live to fight another down. That is not an incredibly resounding endorsement, but in a way, it is meant to be one. When Webb got hurt near halftime against Baylor, the floodgates opened up -- Baylor averaged 6.1 yards per play and scored 13 points in the first half, then averaged 10.6 yards per play and scored 29 points in the second.
The Beef: Speaking of another person who came on as the season went on, I thought Webb certainly improved as the weather turned colder. With a lot of playing time and seasons in front of him, it will be interesting to see if he becomes the stalwart back there or if there is additional time as a non-starter coming. I would hope it would be the former, since I like what I saw out of him. Will he become a quarterback in the back? And Gilmer always reminds me of Gilroy … just sayin’.
Tavon Bolden (6’1, 205, Jr., Houston, TX)
2010: 11.0 tackles
Bill C.: In uniform, Tavon Bolden almost looks exactly like William Moore. And he showed some interesting potential as an enforcer type in 2010 before missing last season with academic issues. I am not incredibly secure about his speed, but between Bolden and Walker, Mizzou does seem to have a couple of solid, physical, run-supporting safeties.
The Beef: Well, I think people had high hopes for Bolden coming into this past season. Hopefully everything has been settled out and he can become a story Uncle Verne can talk about when he does the Mizzou/Alabama game in October. I would love to see this young man become all that we hope he would be this year, since I think the measurables are there and he certainly showed some potential way back when.
Matt White (6’0, 195, Jr., Keller, TX)
2010: 14.0 tackles, 2 PBU
2011: 37.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 4 PBU
Bill C.: Poor Matt White. By all accounts he is a good kid and a hard worker, and he does have some solid ball skills, but he just wasn’t big enough to be a slow as he seemed to be in 2011, and he wasn’t fast enough to make up for his lack of size. Unfair as it may be, my lingering vision of White comes against Baylor -- he gets burned deep by Tevin Reese for a 68-yard touchdown (Reese even slowed down while he was bobbling the deep ball but still wasn’t caught), then cannot close a hole against the run fast enough to prevent Terrance Ganaway from racing by him for an 80-yard touchdown just 90 seconds later. That others seem to have surpassed him on the depth chart is probably a good thing, as much as I hate saying things like that.
The Beef: So I think most folks were pretty surprised when Matt White received as much playing time as he did. To his credit, he had the most PBU’s of anyone coming back, though some might say that was because he was targeted quite a bit in the back. Again, I think we see more run and a little less pass, so it will be interesting to see the transformation of this position and the responsibilities as we move through the season. So with that in mind, perhaps White continues to earn the time that would seem to confuse and confound those who believe themselves to be "in the know." In the end … who knows?
Daniel Easterly (6’4, 195, So., Detroit, MI)
2011: 6.5 tackles
Bill C.: This was a big spring for Daniel Easterly. With Tavon Bolden still working himself back into coaches’ good graces, and with Matt White sinking on the depth chart, the opportunity was there for Easterly to make a move. But while Walker and Webb were seemingly playing well, and while redshirt freshman Ian Simon was surging, Easterly’s name didn’t pop up much on the practice reports. Easterly should be all sorts of intriguing to Missouri fans, just because his Demontie Cross-esque size. But he needs to begin distinguishing himself, and quickly.
The Beef: 6-foot-4 roaming the secondary … sounds like a good thing. I don’t think Easterly earned his tackles in the secondary as much as he did on special teams, so perhaps that is his lot in life. Entering his third year in the program, now would seem to be a make-or-break type of off-season for him. You would hope he perhaps would put on a little size and make a run towards time on the field as perhaps a backup. If not, then it will be interesting to see what the next off season brings for him.
Cortland Browning (6’1, 210, RS Fr., Tyler, TX)
Bill C.: Browning began to garner quite a bit of recruiting buzz during his senior year in high school, but he stayed loyal to his longtime Mizzou commitment. With that buzz, I was hoping to hear good things from him this spring, but instead we heard quite a bit more from the other redshirt from Texas.
The Beef: Will Browning be bigger once the season starts? Perhaps. Will he become a new star from the state of Texas? Perhaps. Can I ask more obtuse questions to make up for the fact I really don’t have anything to say? Perhaps.
(Ed note: when The Beef wrote that, Browning was listed at 195. So … yes, Beef! He will be bigger once the season starts! Of course, he was also listed at 6-foot-2 at the time, so we apparently have to worry about him shrinking.)
Ian Simon (5’11, 190, RS Fr., Mansfield, TX)
Bill C.: We’ve talked a lot about "enforcers" and "run support" and, in Braylon Webb’s case, safety valves. But where are the ball hawks? Ian Simon seemed to fill that role through much of spring practice, differentiating himself with speed and ball skills. He sounds custom-made for a "nickel back" type of role. We’ll see how much playing time that earns him this fall.
INCOMING: Ka’Ra Stewart (6’0, 190, Fr., ***, O’Fallon, IL)
Bill C.: Ka’Ra Stewart’s name came out of nowhere last November and December, but once his film began to circulate among Missouri fans, it became quite easy to see what Mizzou coaches saw in him. At the high school level, he showed everything you would want to see out of a safety -- speed, size potential, tackling, ball skills, etc. If he is able to show these same things at the FBS level in August, he could plow his way into the second string. There are a lot of interesting candidates here, but not a single no-brainer in the bunch.
The Beef: What I know about Stewart is that I believe he is not from O’Fallon, IL, originally and he was a fast-riser on the recruiting boards before he made his commitment to the Tigers. Seems to be pretty athletic, so who knows if this is where he ends up or not.
INCOMING: John Gibson (5’10, 175, Fr., ***, Missouri City, TX)
Bill C.: Okay, so John Gibson is a cornerback. He committed to Missouri after I had already drawn up these posts and distributed them to The Beef and RPT (the Walkthrough series: both informative and completely lacking in timeliness!), and his commitment was so anti-climactic and almost under-the-radar that I forgot to add him here. Apologies, Mr. Gibson. I am adding the below blurb to the cornerbacks post.
In a way, John Gibson fell into Missouri’s lap. A longtime Arkansas commit, Gibson is not guaranteed to qualify, and he was told by Bobby Petrino, late in the recruiting process, that with the new caps on signing classes, Arkansas couldn’t afford to spend a spot on him in case he didn’t qualify and occupied the spot of someone who would. Missouri, meanwhile, had some open slots in their class. Hello, Mr. Gibson. We have no idea if Gibson will actually qualify or end up placed in a junior college, but with extra slots this was a no-risk situation for Mizzou: either they stumble into a cornerback with what appear to be great coverage and ball skills and speed to burn, or he doesn’t qualify and they maybe end up with him in a couple of years. Regardless, his film is fantastic.