In 2016, Mizzou basically switched bodies with some over mediocre team. After collapsing offensively in 2015 but fielding one of its best ever defenses, Mizzou hired its defensive coordinator ... and collapsed defensively but fielded a much better offense.
Granted, that made 2016 games more entertaining than 2015’s, but that’s not really the way things were supposed to go down.
The defense’s sudden collapse makes it pretty difficult to figure out what Mizzou is capable of this fall. The offense returns enough of last year’s production that, while crazy things happen sometimes, it can comfortably be projected as at least a top-40 unit. The defense, though?
I still don’t completely know what to think of the Tigers’ defense heading into the fall, but I know this: if these five players end up doing really well, Mizzou is going to be just fine.
5. CB Christian Holmes
The new John Gibson, basically. Gibson had an underrated senior season, recording eight passes defensed and a tackle for loss and helping Mizzou hold seven opponents under a 125 passer rating despite run defense issues. Granted, a couple of bad games led to a Passing S&P+ ranking of 72nd, but hey, that’s still better than the run defense.
The loss of both Gibson and Aarion Penton (we’ll get to him) means Missouri is more or less starting over at cornerback. It’s senior Logan Cheadle and youth, basically. Cheadle is never going to be 6’2, but he’s a fighter, and if he wins the starting job opposite (probably) DeMarkus Acy, he’ll probably do okay.
Holmes, however, has size and athleticism (and, therefore, upside) that Cheadle might not. If he and Acy (higher on this list) are ready to deliver, that would make a massive difference in the team’s overall upside.
Sophomores Acy and Holmes spent a lot of time on the first string this spring. If they are ready to thrive, any particular issues at cornerback are solved for a while. They have length that Cheadle cannot boast — Acy is listed at 6’2, 195, Holmes 6’1, 195 — and they appear to be quickly earning the trust of defensive backs coach Ryan Walters.
But they’re sophomores. And true sophomores at that. They’ve made a combined 6.5 tackles in their careers. And while you can somewhat make up for lesser recruiting rankings with the proper level of experience, even in the SEC, Acy and Holmes have neither the requisite experience nor the standout recruiting rankings. They weren’t poorly rated, mind you — Acy was a mid-three star, at least — but for Mizzou to reach its ceiling in 2017, they’ll have to overachieve what is projected of them. And if they don’t, or if there’s an injury, then freshmen Terry Petry and Adam Sparks will be called upon sooner than later.
4. DE Marcell Frazier
Mizzou still couldn’t stop the run very well late in 2016, but when Barry Odom announced that he was reinstalling a more aggressive front midseason, and Tiger defensive ends Charles Harris, Marcell Frazier, and company were able to start pinning their ears back a bit more, it made a difference. The TIgers still had no idea what to do with Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs, but they sacked Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur and Arkansas’ Austin Allen a combined 10 times in just 79 pass attempts.
Frazier had 5.5 of those 10 sacks. He was Missouri’s best defensive lineman in November after spending most of the first two months as a non-factor. He told reporters this spring that the read-and-react scheme Odom and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp were trying to install “was like playing with your legs taped together and your arms behind your back.” Not particularly optimal.
The more aggressive scheme evidently remains in place, and while the defensive tackle position remains an ongoing concern/mystery, the presence of an ace pass rusher would help to assure that if or when Missouri forces passing downs, the drive ends soon after. If he has the kind of big year he hinted at having last November (this time, it bears mentioning, without Harris), that would have quite an impact.
3. DT [Insert JUCO transfer here]
Rashad Brandon. Malik Young. Walter Palmore. Doesn’t matter. At least one of them needs to become an immediate, SEC-level contributor in the middle for Mizzou. Not all-SEC, necessarily (though no one would complain), but solid and strong.
[Defensive coordinator Demontie] Cross lit up at the mention of Brandon’s name after Tuesday’s practice, during which Brandon was a wreaking machine on the interior of the line.
“We’ve got” more “guys coming,” Cross said, “but to have him here, in shape the way he is, playing as hard as he is, and making an impact that he’s made so far, he’s definitely been an upgrade, not only from ability, but also from depth, so we’re very excited.”
Young and Palmore are still finishing up coursework this summer and are on track to report in August. Here’s to hoping, anyway; the odds of a breakthrough are much better with three guys than they are with one, even if Brandon is showing major potential.
2. DT Terry Beckner Jr.
Missouri’s run defense was miserable last year. Anybody with memories of the LSU or Tennessee games knew that without needing backup from advanced stats, but the advanced stats definitely back it up: the Tigers ranked 14th in Rushing S&P+ in 2015 ... and 109th last year. Ouch.
The reasons for that were myriad. The scheme change certainly didn’t take, nor did Shipp’s relationship with the players at hand. Linebackers (and to a lesser degree, safeties) struggled in the tackling department. It was a giant mess, and there’s never just one reason for that.
But the fact that things got even worse without Beckner probably shouldn’t be surprising. Kentucky’s Bennie Snell and Boom Williams combined for 57 carries and 374 yards in the first game post-Beckner, South Carolina’s young Rico Dowdle went for 149 yards in 27 carries, and the duo of John Kelly and Dobbs combined for 293 yards in 27 carries in Knoxville.
Beckner wasn’t around for the scheme change; he was busy recuperating from his second season-ending knee injury in two years. His recovery has gone according to schedule, and he’s expected to be 100 percent this fall, and his ability to remain 100 percent long enough to establish his presence will also have a massive impact on Mizzou’s upside. He is Mizzou’s blue-chipper, one of the best prospects in the nation in 2015, and he has shown plenty of glimpses of that potential. Mizzou needs more than one defensive tackle to step up — and it goes without saying that the linebackers and safeties need to tackle better — but if we’re looking back at 2017 as Beckner’s breakout year, good things probably happened for the Tigers.
1. CB DeMarkus Acy
For all the reasons Holmes made the list above, Acy makes it doubly. If he’s up for the task, he will be playing the role of Penton against top SEC receivers like South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Florida’s Antonio Callaway, Kentucky’s Garrett Johnson, Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings, etc. If he holds his own, Mizzou might be fine. If Mizzou doesn’t have a No. 1 corner, however, then it’s possible nothing else matters.
No pressure, DeMarkus.