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Answerable spring questions: Who will step up for Mizzou in the secondary?

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Quantity is not a problem for Missouri in the defensive backfield. Quality? Less certain.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri
Cam Hilton (7) and Jordan Ulmer (11)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

There’s nothing better than when spring football sneaks up on you. It means that either a) your basketball team (men’s and women’s!) have effectively distracted you with good things through the month of February, b) you didn’t experience any major winter offseason drama, or c) both.

For Mizzou, it was (c). There was an offensive coordinator search, sure, and Kaleb Prewett’s departure was unexpected. But compared to other programs, that’s not a lot.

Following spring football is an exercise in reading tea leaves. Practices are closed off enough that reporters really don’t get to see much and end up making the most of wafts of information. We’re not going to learn nearly as much as we would like about Derek Dooley’s offense, for instance, but those wafts can still be educational. So in the opening days of spring ball, let’s talk about what we maybe can learn about Mizzou’s 2018 football squad in the coming weeks.

We start today in the back.

How the heck is the secondary taking shape?

This is maybe the most answerable question Missouri faces, simply because we’ll learn a lot from who’s lining up at the front of the stretch lines.

We start here:

The Tigers will hit spring facing a secondary shuffle for the second straight year. In 2017, they had to replace both starting cornerbacks (Aarion Penton and John Gibson) and then lost a potential contributor (Christian Holmes) to injury. A young CB unit gelled a bit as the year progressed (Mizzou ended up rising to 46th in Passing S&P+), but it was still an obvious issue for a while.

This year, it’s the safety position’s turn to experience turnover. Mizzou is without both Prewett and Anthony Sherrils, a duo that helped to greatly stabilize the pass defense late in the year. They are also without backups like T.J. Warren, who confirmed on Monday that he is indeed transferring.

If you take stock, Mizzou appears to have quite a few potential answers in the back. But there are almost no guarantees.

By the end of 2017, DeMarkus Acy was playing about as well as we hoped he would at the beginning.

He finished the year with five tackles for loss, three pass breakups, and a forced fumble and took part in six run stuffs. Honestly, he played cornerback like a safety, which, as PowerMizzou reminds us, he was originally recruited to be. He’s physical and active and only decent at actual pass coverage. That makes him an interesting piece — if Mizzou is happy with its other corners, Acy could potentially move back to his original home position. And he might be really good at it.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky
Demarkus Acy
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes on Christian Holmes and Adam Sparks, then.

Holmes suffered a late-August shoulder injury and redshirted after threatening to crack the starting lineup in the offseason. Sparks, a true freshman last fall, eventually passed then-senior Logan Cheadle on the depth chart and finished the season as a starter. He showed better ball skills than Acy, picking off two passes and breaking up four more, and if he spends this offseason adding to his 172-pound frame, he could end up starting for the next three years.

Sparks will almost certainly start, but Holmes is key here. If he thrives this spring, Acy could change positions. But if he doesn’t, I’m not sure who will. Finis Stribling IV enters his senior year having never really broken through, and while redshirt freshman Terry Petry was a well-regarded recruit in 2017, you never want to rely on redshirt freshmen to take over. The same goes for Tyrone Collins — the true freshman is one of the most intriguing of Mizzou’s 2018 signees to me, but he’s still a true freshman. Even if there’s a breakthrough, it might not happen till summer or fall camp.

Mizzou will get an influx of youth at the position this summer, when fellow 2018 signees Chris Mills and Jarvis Ware join the mix. But for now Mizzou remains pretty thin at corner, especially if Acy (or, hell, maybe Holmes, if we’re looking for plot twists) makes the change.

With or without Acy, there’s quantity and possible quality at safety.

The problem is, we haven’t seen any sustained quality yet.

Over two seasons in the defensive backfield, Cam Hilton has produced an interception, eight breakups, and 3.5 TFLs; he’s a fantastic, if slightly undersized (6’0, 190) athlete and a potential play-maker. But every foray with the first-string has been temporary, and there have been times when I wondered why he ever moved from receiver (where he had nine catches for 129 yards as a freshman) in the first place.

Still, entering his senior year, Hilton’s still got a chance to distinguish himself. So does junior-to-be Ronnell Perkins.

Perkins looked like a surefire future starter when he recorded 3.5 TFLs and three breakups as a redshirt freshman in 2016. But he got lost in the shuffle a year ago, dealing with injuries and not seeing the field as much. He did still finish the year with 22.5 tackles, a TFL, a run stuff, a PBU, and a forced fumble, though. He’s bigger than Hilton (6’0, 205) and has time to turn into an exciting contributor.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri
Ronnell Perkins (3)
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Sophomores Josh Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie, and Jordan Ulmer all saw action as true freshmen in 2017, though their trajectories were all very different. Ulmer was a fall camp standout and actually started the Missouri State game. After the Tigers struggled massively in that game, however, he barely saw the field — he had six tackles against MSU and 1.5 the rest of the year.

Bledsoe followed the opposite track. He had only 1.5 tackles over the first five games but had 8.5 over the final eight. He saw quite a few snaps at the nickel, and I’m curious what an offseason in the weight room has done for the 6’0, 200-pounder.

That goes for Gillespie, too. Among this trio of sophomores, we heard probably the most good things about the Ocala (Fla.) product, and he spent most of the season on the depth chart, but he finished with just two assisted tackles.

Finally, let us not forget Tavon Ross.

One of my favorite pieces from the 2014 signing class, Ross dealt with an endless stream of injuries early in his career, but he managed to carve out a bit of a niche in 2017 from the nickel back/outside linebacker role, mostly in short-yardage situations. He remains listed as a linebacker (as does Bledsoe), but only because Barry Odom wants to project the message that nickel backs and OLBs are kind of the same thing. That’s fine. I’ll still consider both as safeties in the comfort of my living room, and Ross has a chance to further establish a role, no matter how we’re labeling him.

Oregon transfer Khalil Oliver arrives after the semester ends and could very much change the safety equation. But for now, we’ll see how the math shapes up without him.

NCAA Football: Washington at Oregon
Khalil Oliver
Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports