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2010 Missouri Tigers Walkthrough: Cornerbacks

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So we're excited about the running backs, happily intrigued about the wide receivers and defensive ends, cautiously optimistic about the defensive tackles, giddy about the quarterbacks, offensive line and linebackers ... is there anything we're less than Asian kiddy about?  Glad you asked.  Let's talk about the secondary.  First up: the cornerbacks.

Beginning in the second half of 2008, Mizzou's pass defense began rather regularly committing the cardinal sin for the Pinkel defensive philosophy: they started getting burned deep.  Then, it seemed as much about CB-to-safety miscommunication.  In 2009 (Texas game aside), it was just seemingly about cornerbacks being beaten.

The bend-don't-break philosophy of pass defense is far from a fan favorite, but it can work.  However, three things need to happen:

  1. You need a rock solid run defense.  Mizzou's has been just fine in recent years (Texas Bowl aside).

  2. You need DBs who tackle well.  You allow an underneath pass, and it doesn't get many yards because the receiver gets tackled quickly.  The whole idea of Mizzou's defensive philosophy is that it takes opponents a ton of plays (and therefore a ton of opportunities for mistakes) to score.  Turning short passes into big gains not only eats up a too-big chunk of yards, but it is also demoralizing to a defense.

  3. You CANNOT get burned deep.  This one is beyond self-explanatory.  If you're getting roasted over the top, that means that opponents don't have to make tough choices or get impatient.  Plus, it goes without saying that if you are willingly giving up the short pass while simultaneously giving up the long pass ... well, that's not good.

If you're going to get burned deep, you might as well play tight coverage in the hopes of breaking up some passes or getting some picks.  Does this group of cornerbacks have what it takes to stem a nasty trend in the pass rankings*?  Does Mizzou have athletes good enough, with the recovery speed needed to play any style of pass defense?  Let's take a look.

Returnees

The Carl Gettis Treatment™ (5'11, 195, Sr.)
2009: 54.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR, 5 PBR
2008: 65.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FR, 1 INT, 4 PBR
2007: 44.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBR

Image via Bill Carter

So what do we know about Carl Gettis three years into his college career?

  • He's not who he thought he was going to be two years ago, when we thought he had the possibility to be the best lock-down corner at Mizzou in a generation.
  • For the last two seasons, he has fallen victim to miscommunication with his safeties and with the coaches on the sidelines.  He has released receivers, thinking the safety had his back, when in fact no safety had his back, and after giving up almost no big plays whatsoever his first year and a half as Mizzou starter, he has been involved in quite a few breakdowns the last two seasons, particularly against Northwestern in 2008 and Texas in 2009.
  • He's a solid-not-great punt returner, one who got better as the season progressed, at least until ...
  • He struggled through a series of injuries in 2009.  He injured his ankle against Nebraska (he would randomly limp off the field for plays at a time the rest of the season), then hurt his neck against Baylor.
  • Missouri's secondary is absolutely, positively, unequivocally better when Gettis is involved.  What happened when he limped off the field against Nebraska?  His backup got burned for the touchdown that swung every ounce of momentum to Nebraska.  What happened when he stumbled to the sidelines against Baylor?  Exactly the same thing: his backup got burned for the game-turning touchdown.

Despite the occasional breakdowns in the last season and a half, there has never been any question that Gettis is the best cornerback on the roster for the Pinkel/Steckel defensive system.  He is as competent as they come in terms of keeping plays in front of him (miscommunication aside, anyway ... and no, that cannot be dismissed or completely forgiven), then coming up and making the tackle with the play in front of him.  He is opportunistic, has made big plays in big games (he forced a fumble against Illinois, then forced one and recovered two against Kansas), and is rock solid (for a cornerback) in run support.  No, he is not an All-American level cornerback, and unless the pieces all come together nicely as a senior, he is not an all-conference cornerback either.  (Some endorsement, huh?)  But he is a steady competitor, and most of the biggest defensive breakdowns take place when he is not involved.

Kevin Rutland (6'0, 195, Sr.)
2009: 43.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 2 INT, 2 PBR
2008: 20.5 tackles, 1 FR, 1 INT, 5 PBR
2007: 4.0 tackles

Image via Missourinet

The breakthrough player of last spring, Kevin Rutland was a starter for the entire 2009 season, and he was ... fine.  He had a couple of timely picks, showed a Gettis-like opportunistic streak ... and got roasted quite a few times.  Were the lapses due to inexperience (despite the fact that he was a junior, 2009 was his first season playing full-time) or to the fact that he's already hitting his head on his own personal ceiling?  We have heard from multiple reporters that he has wonderful overall athleticism, and he was just starting to figure things out last spring.  Will he improve a lot his senior year, or is inconsistency what we have to expect from him in 2010 too?

The answer to that last question completely shapes this Walkthrough.  Either we are looking at two entrenched senior starters, with youngsters behind them positioning themselves for a starting job in 2011, or we are looking at one all-but-certain starter (Gettis) with another senior fending off major challenges from every direction.  I would not be surprised if it's the former, but I kind of think (hope) it is the latter.  While Robert Steeples may not have made the most of his playing time in 2009, Rutland could be facing a significant challenge from at least one rising sophomore, one who wears the #1...

Kip Edwards (6'1, 195, So.)
2009: 18.0 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBR

Image via The Trib

Kip Edwards also seemed to make a lot of strides last spring, to the point where I assumed he was pretty clearly the team's #3 cornerback with a shot at #2 (I was very impressed by both Edwards and Rutland in the spring game) heading into the summer.  Then, after August practices, he wasn't even on the second string.  He had been overtaken by Steeples and Trey Hobson.  What happened?  At the time, it just seemed like Mizzou had great depth, and Edwards was momentarily bumped back in the pack.  But when you look at Mizzou's overall pass defense rankings, it's hard to make too serious an argument about depth.

We don't know what happened to Edwards at the beginning of the season, but we do know he made major strides in November.  After a couple of breakdowns by Steeples, Edwards got his chance and played some really good ball.  He was easily Mizzou's best cornerback against Kansas, registering an interception and two pass break-ups.  He came on very strong, and I would be a bit surprised if he wasn't neck-and-neck with Rutland in the springtime.

We've talked a lot about upside and potential in this Walkthrough series; however, it doesn't come up nearly as much when discussing defensive backs. Whereas Mizzou's DEs, DTs and LBs have what could be considered above-average athleticism for their given positions, the DBs are just good athletes, not great athletes.  Definitely no better than the receivers they are facing in the Big 12.  If there is an exception to that, it appears to be Edwards.  He's a hair taller than Rutland and more athletic than Gettis, and you don't have to watch him for very long to realize the potential he seems to have.  That's why it was very exciting to see his late-season surge.  He could (COULD) be MIzzou's best corner for the next few years if he continues to develop, and even if he doesn't end up winning the job, I very much hope to see him pushing Rutland hard for the starting spot.

Robert Steeples (6'1, 190, So.)
2009: 13.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 FF, 4 PBR

Image via Bill Carter

Robert Steeples had an eventful redshirt freshman season.  As mentioned, he passed Edwards on the depth chart early in the season and saw quite a bit of playing time.  He proved himself as a potential asset in run support and a nice, physical presence in pass coverage.  (Hell, look at the pic above -- that's him breaking up a pass to All-American Freddie Barnes.)  It became pretty quickly possible to see a ton of upside in #22.  And then the breakdowns started.  When Gettis injured his ankle against Nebraska, and with the Tigers nursing a 12-0 lead, Steeples got fooled badly by Niles Paul on a double move; Paul scored from 56 yards out, and from then on, it was all Nebraska.  He was beaten repeatedly by Hubert Anyiam early the next week against Oklahoma State (bailed out by Jasper Simmons on a deep ball or two), but he fought Anyiam to a stand-still in the second half, and after starting to look solid in a backup role again, he came in for a woozy Gettis against Baylor and was beaten deep by Kendall Wright. The 59-yard touchdown gave Baylor a lead they wouldn't relinquish.

So now it's time to ask similar questions of Steeples as of Rutland: was Steeples just a young CB with loads of potential, thrown onto the field a bit too early, before he was truly ready to be a big-time cover guy?  Or is he the second incarnation of Hardy Ricks, a hard hitter and a decent DB, who doesn't have quite enough cover skills to be a big-time contributor?  You never want to reach too many conclusions about a freshman, but let's just say that Steeples has quite a bit to prove this spring after the breakdowns.  Since we all know how this staff's general philosophy is "Give up the short ball, but whatever you do ... DON'T GET BURNED DEEP," you know the breakdowns had sufficient repercussions, as evidenced by Edwards seeing the field over Steeples in November, and you know the staff will be asking plenty questions of Steeples this spring as well.

Trey Hobson (5'11, 190, Jr.)
2009: 15.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks
2008: 13.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL/sacks, 1 PBR

Image via Zimbio.com

Trey Hobson must not practice very well.  That's really all I can come up with.  He is a disruptive special teams force, and in sporadic action he has proven to have a quick, physical presence in the secondary.  He is aggressive -- perhaps too aggressive for the staff's liking -- and though he has never been beaten deep, maybe that's just a coincidence, the result of a small sample size?  Maybe it's only a matter of time?

Amid the juniors (Gettis, Rutland) and the freshmen (Edwards, Steeples), Hobson was lost in the shuffle in 2009.  We at RMN really liked what we saw from him near the end of 2008, and we thought he would play a much bigger potential role in the secondary than he actually did, and ... honestly, I haven't seen enough of him to change my mind either way.  Rutland took a huge step forward between his sophomore and junior seasons, and I find myself hoping that Hobson does the same.  Whatever he's doing wrong -- and I trust this staff just enough to assume he's doing something wrong to get him dumped behind the four aforementioned players, and that there are no vendettas here -- it's most certainly not too late for him to put all the pieces together.  He has shown major flashes of quality play, and here's to hoping he gives the staff no choice but to put him on the field.

Munir Prince (5'10, 185, Sr.)
2009: 4.5 tackles

Image via The Missourian


Ahh, Whoosh.  Your career has been one giant mix of speed and bench time.  Prince has never been able to challenge for major playing time despite high-end speed (the Greg Bracey of DBs?), and he has teased two fanbases in the meantime.  The DeSmet product spent two years as a backup RB and DB for Notre Dame before transferring to Mizzou and spending most of his first eligible season on the third string.  There's always a possibility that things click late in his career, but it doesn't usually work that way.  For a third-stringer, he is pretty rock solid (if there were a major run of injury, it doesn't seem like there would be a gigantic drop-off ... again, a ringing endorsement, I realize), but he may have missed his opportunity to be more than that.

Incoming

Tristan Holt (6'0, 185, Fr.)
Gilmer, TX, ****

Image via Gilmer Buckeyes


The words "potential" and "upside" didn't come up nearly enough for my liking in those six write-ups ... but fear not! Upside is here!  Is it bad that I was a bit disappointed that Tristan Holt came out of nowhere to receive a 4-star rating from Rivals?  I had been reading Gilmer game recaps all year (they won state), and it seemed like Holt was either returning a kick/punt for a touchdown, or scoring on a long catch/run in every single game.  He was the most dominant figure for one of the most dominant teams (for their class) in the state of Texas, and he was easily my choice for the coveted role of "sleeper candidate" for the 2010 class.  But alas, you can't be a 4-star sleeper.  Somehow I'll have to live with this crushing disappointment.

Seriously, it's impossible to quantify how excited I am about Holt.  I mentioned how Mizzou's DB unit is full of good-not-great athletes, at least in terms of the position they play.  Well, Holt might just be the breakthrough athlete Mizzou has been hoping to land.  He's got good size, great speed, and a world of potential.  I never want to count on freshmen to contribute, but I fully expect at least one freshman CB to break into the rotation come August, and Holt is easily the #1 candidate to do that.

Another reason for Holt-y optimism: he could make an immediate impact in the return game as well.

Xavier Smith (5'11, 180, Fr.)
Edmond, OK, ***

Image via Rivals.com

If word of mouth is your chosen means for generating optimism, then Smith's your guy.  All season, we continued to hear stories on PowerMizzou and elsewhere of Smith pretty much locking down one entire side of the field for his Edmond North defense.  Teams not only wouldn't throw at his man, they wouldn't even look to his side of the field because he would make the play every time.  He drew an offer from Mizzou after a dominant performance at their one-day KC camp; he quickly visited Columbia and committed after that.  He was a bit of a sleeper before camps, but after a dominant summer and apparently a transcendent fall, rumors started to surface that he might end up receiving the coveted fourth star just like Holt.  He narrowly missed out on that, but ... well ... if Holt's not your "Newbie Who's Going to Change Everything" of choice, then give Smith a good look.  If one of these two guys lives up to my own personal expectations of them, Mizzou's secondary improves by a good margin.

E.J. Gaines (5'10, 170, Fr.)
Independence, MO, ***

Image via Examiner.net

And if neither Holt nor Smith are your guy, go ahead and move your chips to E.J. Gaines.  In quoting StL recruiting expert Danny Heitert, Dave Matter shared the following quote on Twitter yesterday:

Heitert loved @TJMoe coming out of HS and said EJ Gaines has similar skills plus "an orgasmic highlight package" Not sure I want to see that

Being that TJ Moe was StL's player of the year last year, that is a pretty lofty (and rather uncomfortable) statement.  PowerMizzou subscribers can check out some highlights here, and while I'm not sure I'd use the word "orgasmic" (simply because I never use the word "orgasmic"), it's encouraging.  He is skinnier than Holt or Smith, and we'll see if he has the size to make an immediate impact (or whether he'll spend a redshirt season bulking up a smidge), but Gaines put up pretty ridiculous stats as a senior, and he seems to have plenty of tools and major athleticism.

(And yes, we probably tend to think that ALL incoming recruits have better athleticism than the incumbents.  Oh well.)

Dexter McDonald (6'2, 180, Fr.)
Kansas City, MO, ***

Image via Rivals.com

A "Thank you, Ron Zook" recruit, McDonald chose Illinois over Missouri last summer before re-opening his recruitment amid Illinois' obvious on-field struggles, and he ended up committing to Mizzou last month.  McDonald is just as likely to end up at safety as at cornerback, but for now we're sticking him here.  Here's what Rivals.com had to say about him after seeing him play in September:

STRENGTHS: McDonald is long, which is something that helps with the taller receivers that are en vogue in today's game. He does have good ball-hawk skills and always is near the ball when it is up in the air. He also showed good run support, coming up with several nice tackles near the line of scrimmage.

WEAKNESSES: McDonald is not a true burner at cornerback. He will definitely have a hard time keeping up with the speedier receivers he'll face on the next level. But he does have other assets that can somewhat neutralize that deficiency.

With three candidates for the role of "burner," it is nice to see Mizzou nabbing a bigger potential corner as well.  He is a nice, bigger defensive back, and he offers the Tigers some nice variety heading into the future.

UPDATE, 01/28/2010: Or not. McDonald has switched his commitment to Kansas.

2010 vs 2009

What's interesting (to me) about the cornerbacks unit is how it is broken into sections.  You've got your senior starters (Gettis & Rutland), hopefully having to fend off challenges from many directions.  You've got your rising sophomores (Edwards & Steeples), seemingly with all the athletic ability you would hope for and plenty of time to put things together.  You've got your somewhat-hyped veterans (Hobson, Prince) who have, for whatever reason (in Hobson's case, a reason seemingly not related to play during games), not put the pieces all together yet.  And now you've got a well-hyped, diverse group of incoming freshmen (Holt, Smith, Gaines, McDonald).

What should we hope to see from this unit moving forward?

  1. Competition.  Duh.  These guys need to all be pushing each other for playing time.
  2. A least one sophomore takes the leap.  Obviously I'm leaning towards Edwards as the most likely candidate at the moment, but if either Edwards and Steeples can either overtake Rutland or push him to a new level, Mizzou is very much better off for it.
  3. Trey Hobson practices better.  Again, that's the only rationale I can find for why he hasn't seen the field more, so I want him to put all the pieces together and get a chance to prove his worth on the field.
  4. At least one true freshman cracks the rotation in August.  If none of the freshmen are field-ready by the time the Illinois game rolls around, I'll be at least somewhat disappointed.  I'm not naive enough to think that they'll all be as good as I hope they can be, but if one of them finds a spot in a crowded rotation, I'll be happy.

Clearly this is not the strongest unit Mizzou has heading into 2010, but there is still potential here and reason for hope if certain people (i.e. Edwards/Steeples, Hobson) have really good springs.  Time to hope for the best.

---

* It's time for my annual rant on pass defense rankings.  I stuck it at the bottom of the post so nobody has to read it if they don't want to. Here goes:

We've seen the same people fall into the same trap this year, saying Mizzou's pass defense "ranked 104th in the country," just like they "ranked 117th" last year.  And they did, in fact, rank just that in passing yards allowed.  While I realize that not everybody is on the "per-play stats are king" bandwagon like I am, can we PLEASE get away from using this?  Who would you say had the better pass defense in 2009, San Jose State or Penn State?  Using passing yards, the answer is San Jose State (22nd in the country, PSU was 24th).  By the same measure, Miami-OH (27th) was better than UCLA (28th) and LSU (29th), Kent State's (62nd) was better than Michigan's (67th), Western Kentucky's (81st) was better than Oregon State's (84th), and Utah State's (101st) was better than Missouri's.  And of course, Tulane's 2008 pass defense (14th) was MUCH, MUCH BETTER than Oklahoma's (99th), Texas' (104th), Oklahoma State's (109th), Oregon's (111th), Kansas' (114th) and Missouri's (117th).  There is not a more context-dependent measure than Passing Yards Allowed, and we MUST stop using it. 

Even if you're not a big S&P+ fan (and believe it or not, I accept that), can we at least agree to use pass efficiency?  That at least puts Mizzou's iffy pass defense in better context.  It is completely reasonable to believe that Mizzou's pass defense was mediocre at best, below-average at worst, but they simply weren't one of the twenty worst in the country.  We're picking nits here -- regardless of what stat we use, Mizzou's pass D wasn't good enough in 2009 (their S&P+ ranking fell off significantly), but ... context.  Please.