TJ Warren is responsible for one of the more unique roster developments you’ll ever see: within 12 months, he went from starting Mizzou’s Black & Gold Game at cornerback in 2016 to getting listed as a linebacker in 2017. That’s ... rare.
I’m not listing him as a linebacker, though. Mizzou appears set to use its nickel back a lot more this fall. That’s a pretty big gamble if you think about it: the Tigers’ run defense was pretty abysmal last year — 109th in Rushing S&P+ — and willfully making your front seven smaller, even if by only about 30 pounds or so (outside linebacker Donavin Newsom was listed at 240 pounds last year, and Warren is listed at 210), is a risk.
Still, recent history suggests that the nickel looks pretty good on Missouri, and if the defensive tackle unit improves (as it damn well should), then the trade could work. Mizzou could make its run front sturdier with the addition of Rashad Brandon and/or a couple of other interesting JUCOs and Terry Beckner Jr.’s return to health, and it could utilize the nickel to both attack the line of scrimmage with more speed and better corral opposing slot receivers.
This all depends on how good Mizzou’s nickels are. And because I cannot help but view them more as third safeties than third linebackers (even with assistant Brian Odom being given the “outside linebackers coach” title), I’m listing Warren and another “linebacker,” Tavon Ross, as safeties.
Here’s a look at Mizzou’s safety crop over the coming seasons.
(Note: Jerod Alton is listed as a safety here. He could easily also end up at cornerback.)
Mizzou has no sure things here. Anthony Sherrils looked like a star in the making at times in 2015 but appeared a bit less sure of himself last fall, Cam Hilton was in his first year after moving from receiver to safety, and at times it almost appeared that redshirt freshman Ronnell Perkins was the most stable guy. And whether it was directly on the safeties or not, Mizzou allowed a humbling 84 gains of 20-plus yards in 2016; no matter what, that suggests that Mizzou’s safety unit wasn’t providing enough safety.
But in the absence of guarantees, you want options, and lord knows Mizzou’s got that. Experience, too. Sherrils and fellow senior Thomas Wilson are back. The two have combined for two interceptions, 10 breakups, eight tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles in their respective careers, and Wilson has shown enough potential for physicality that he could see time at nickel as well. They’ll have a fight on their hands to stay on the field, though.
The trio of Hilton, Perkins, and Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett — another potential starter at nickel — makes this unit pretty exciting. Hilton is in his second year on defense, Perkins had 3.5 TFLs and three breakups last year, and Prewett quickly proved his play-making ability in spring ball. Throw in Warren, and you could see a trio of safeties/nickels that takes over in 2017 and returns intact in 2018.
The guarantee (more or less) of having both Perkins and Warren for another three years is exciting, as is the potential of the Mizzou newcomers. Mizzou signed three likely safeties — Tyree Gillespie, Jordan Ulmer, and Joshuah Bledsoe — and had to fend off quite a few late-comers to keep them. Gillespie appears physically ready to contribute early, but the redshirts here could depend on those above them. If the sophomores are strong, it would be almost strange to see more than one redshirt torn off.
This unit has quite a bit to prove in 2017, simply because it didn’t prove a whole lot last year. But whatever it becomes this fall, it should become even more in 2018 and beyond. The combination of quantity and potential quality is exciting. Mizzou’s cornerbacks have the latter but not necessarily the former.