Throughout most of the offseason, the Missouri football team mainly had just one question on its mind when it came to the defensive line: What would be defensive end Tre Williams’ fate?
Williams had been away from the team since December after being charged with second-degree domestic assault, but on July 31, just two days before the Tigers’ fall camp started, Williams was reinstated to the team after prosecutors dropped the domestic assault charge and he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor peace disturbance.
So once fall camp began, it seemed that Missouri had no more questions to ask in terms of its line.
But that sentiment lasted less than a full practice, when presumed starting defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat left practice with a sprained elbow. The Tigers couldn’t project an exact return date for Jeffcoat, with head coach Barry Odom saying most weeks that he was getting close to returning, but he ended up missing the rest of fall camp and the first four games of the season.
A bye week after Missouri’s Week 4 win over South Carolina seems to be even more of a blessing now, though, since Jeffcoat is back on the depth chart and has no limitations in practice.
“He’s practicing. As far as I know, he’s good to go,” defensive line coach Brick Haley said. “Everything’s been fine. He wound up pretty good today, so I’m excited about having him back and I can’t wait to watch him play.”
With Jeffcoat in the mix, the Tigers now have multiple starter-level backups. Williams and Jeffcoat could’ve been starters at defensive end this season had they not gone through their respective issues, and defensive tackle Akial Byers had been battling for the starting spot opposite Jordan Elliott prior to Week 1’s depth chart being released.
The line hasn’t always been the brightest of Missouri’s bright spots this season, especially after its loss to Wyoming to open the season, but with all of the unit’s major players healthy and ready, business is booming.
“It’s high-level competition everyday,” Haley said. “That’s part of life. It’s going to be the same way in life when they leave here, so what we do is we try to put the pressure on each other everyday to see who can be the best and have as good a practice as we can.”
And it isn’t like the extra bodies have any negative impact on players’ mindsets.
As much as they believe in themselves, they also believe in their fellow linemen. Defensive end Chris Turner said it’s like a blessing to have so much depth along the line. If a starter gets hurt or needs a break, they’re comfortable knowing the defense won’t fall apart once the next guy comes in.
“(Having that many starting caliber players) is great man, I love it,” Turner said. “I know if I go down, if I get tired, there’s no drop-off. So we have that added back to it.”
This competition also only ramps up what each player expects out of himself.
Turner and defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside, both incumbent Missouri starters, said they don’t feel like they need to be looking over their shoulders as they try to hold onto their jobs. They’re aware that the competition for each spot is never over, but that just makes them more focused on what they do rather than worrying about what’s happening with the other linemen.
“We compete against ourselves (more than each other),” Whiteside said. “What we do in a day is see how far we can push ourselves.”
So with only one week remaining before the Tigers get into the meat of SEC play, it’ll take everybody pushing themselves and each other as hard as ever to make it through the season with a double-digit win record — the win total many though they could reach in 2019.
And with the addition of Jeffcoat, the defensive line just got a major boost as Missouri continues on that journey.