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In the Huddle: Building a defense into a great one

Terry Dennis takes us In the Huddle to look at how Mizzou’s defense cleaned up mistakes and became a top unit this season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 South Carolina at Missouri Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Defense truly does win games and championships; it’s simply the offense’s job to determine by how much.

Since taking over as head coach, Barry Odom’s defense has steadily improved after bottoming out his first year. This season, it feels like the defense has taken another step. With those improvements this season, it’d be easy to just pinpoint individual players’ development as the reason. You wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in doing so.

With a defense that ranked 8th in the SEC in sacks last season, the loss of Terry Beckner Jr. to the NFL undoubtedly raised concerns as to what 2019’s pass rush would look like. Currently after 4 games, the Tigers rank 3rd in total defense nationally, allowing 231 yards per game with a defense that allows less than 4 yards per play. Having allowed only 542 yards through the air in those 4 games, the Tigers sit 4th nationally in passing yards allowed, which currently leads all SEC teams by a landslide. That’s a vast improvement over the SEC-worst 262 yards per game through the air last season. And while the Tigers still rank 46th in sacks, there is certainly something to be said about such a staggering improvement with relatively the same crew.

With a returning a unit mirroring last year’s team at most positions, you might wonder about the preparation and coaching that goes into taking such a big step on that side of the ball. Deficiencies were identified, addressed, and most importantly, corrected in the offseason, but also on a weekly basis.

From a coaching perspective, it is their job to identify chinks in the armor. Improvement starts with both coaches and players realizing things need to improve. Fans saw the potential, but it was inconsistent. Particularly when talking about competing in the offense-heavy SEC, defense is paramount in having a fighting chance. The Tigers proved they can put up points on the offensive side of the ball. Defensively, they’ve started to follow suit in denying opposing teams the opportunity to do the same.

One word that rings true is “fundamentals.”

Sometimes getting back to the basics can be refreshing. It offers perspective that allows those pieces to work together, meaning each guy gets the opportunity to develop new and improved good habits. Those habits are rehashed on a daily basis, as coaches will incorporate those fundamentals into practice.

Accountability to those standards of fundamentals allows each player to fully understand the importance of working as a cohesive unit. Mizzou’s secondary returns nearly everyone, yet many wonder how this same group of men can turn heads at such a rate of improvement from just last season. Therein lies a greater question as to whether the Mizzou faithful should feel pleasantly surprised, or finally at peace.

For the players, it’s a choice. With each year creeping closer to graduation, there comes a time where they have to reflect on the work they’ve done, and ask the question, “Have I given everything?” That question could be yearly, monthly, weekly, daily, or play-to-play. The fact of the matter is — if you change the way you prepare, you change the way you perform. It becomes less about practicing how you play, and more so about perfecting how you practice.

Changing the culture and raising the standards of play can be subtle yet monumental in the grand scheme. A false step in place or being too linear versus an upfield step with a “rip” arm action could be the difference between 2nd string and All-Conference. The little things matter when it comes to improvements.

Sometimes, just like Mizzou’s defense, you don’t need to add pieces; you just need to perfect the ones you have.