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Building 2020: Missouri’s Defensive Roster (for now)

The best part of the 2019 Tigers has some important pieces to replace so lets break it down and see where they stand

NCAA Football: SE Missouri State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday I discussed the offensive roster and where Coach Drinkwitz will be looking to nab a few more ‘croots during the February signing period. Today I’ll do the same for the defense.

Holding on to Ryan Walters and keeping the 4-2-5 scheme is, at this moment, a total win for the young Drinkwitz regime. But the defensive line loses its most disruptive player, and the secondary will be missing its best corner and top two boundary safeties. Like I said yesterday, the success of either offense or defense is how you play the pass and breaking in new faces in the secondary with no proven disruptive linemen to step up makes me a little nervous.

As a reminder, here’s the Missouri two-deep with all graduates and early-Draft-entrees removed:

Missouri Two Deep (by snap counts)

Missouri got a head start on replacing Cale Garrett halfway through the season but never really settled on anyone consistently. We saw the effects of missing Jarvis Ware in the Tennessee game and, even with four of the six safeties returning, the boundary safety position (linebacker/safety hybrid) is not the ideal place to be breaking in all new faces at once. So let’s see what the roster has in stock!

(classes in parentheses are projected 2020 classifications)

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida
Tre Williams
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive End

6 + 0

Returning Producers: Tre Williams (R-SR), Chris Turner (SR), Jatorian Hansford (JR)

Other Returnees: Sci Martin (SR), Isaiah McGuire (SO), Z’Core Brooks (R-FR)

Commits: none (!)

Yeah...this is going to be a huge area of focus for the February signing period. Turner has played 26 games and contributed 29 tackles and 4.5 sacks: unless he has a Michael Sam-esque breakout next year he’s essentially a non-factor. Williams and Hansford were good in spots but far from consistent, and Martin will be gone as soon as he got here, leaving McGuire and Brooks to fill in. The vaunted D-line Zou has recently been a stable of JUCOs and projects that don’t pan out and I don’t anticipate that changing next year. The Odom regime had three defensive linemen committed for 2020, but of course they all bolted once Drinkwitz was hired. Unless there’s a diamond-in-the-rough or character/grade issue guy available, Drink will probably hit the JUCOs to fill in depth and try to hit it big with a splash pass rusher signing in the 2021 class.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri
Kobie Whiteside
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackle

6 + 0

Returning Producers: Markell Utsey (R-SR), Kobie Whiteside (SR), Akial Byers (SR)

Other Returnees: Antar Thompson (SR), Chris Daniels (SR), Darius Robinson (SO)

Commits: also none!

Uh oh! Six players, only one of which will return in 2021! It’s going to be imperative that the coaching staff finds somebody, anybody, to sign in this class so that the interior of the defensive line isn’t just Darius Robinson and some freshman pressed into service too early. As far as 2020 stands, this is a decent rotation: Whiteside really started finding his groove towards the end of the year and Utsey was solid as a space-eater, but it would be nice to see Byers finally flash the potential that we’ve heard so much about. Even with just six scholarships remaining for February (for now) I’d expect at least two to be claimed by defensive tackles.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
Nick Bolton
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Linebackers

9 + 1

Returning Producers: Nick Bolton (JR), Cameron Wilkins (JR)

Other Returnees: Aubrey Miller, Jr. (SR), Jamal Brooks (R-JR), Chad Bailey (R-SO), Gerald Nathan, Jr. (R-SO), Devin Nicholson (SO), Aidan Harrison (R-FR), Jamie Pettway (R-FR)

Commits: Will Norris (FR)

That’s a lot of linebackers for a 4-3 scheme, let alone a 4-2-5. Aidan Harrison might be more of a Boundary Safety guy, but for now is still lumped in with the linebackers. The class management is pretty solid here: 1 senior, 3 juniors, 3 sophomore, 3 freshmen. This might be a position of additional attrition since there’s so many young guys vying for essentially two spots. I won’t prognosticate as to who will leave, but just wanted to point out that this is a position that has the highest chance and it’s a place where Missouri can weather some losses without having to sign more dudes in February. As long as Bolton stays healthy and some combo of Wilkins/Miller/Brooks/Nicholson can step up, I feel pretty good about the linebacking corps.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri
Jarvis Ware
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerbacks

6 + 0

Returning Producers: Jarvis Ware (JR), Christian Holmes (R-SR), Adam Sparks (SR)

Other Returnees: Chris Mills (R-SO), Chris Shearin (R-FR), Ishmael Burdine (R-FR)

Commits: none

Typically you’ll want five corners that you trust: two for each side of the field plus a nickel back who comes in on passing situations to cover the extra receiver. Running a 4-2-5 puts more speed on the field from the safety position and that safety can double as the nickel so you can get away with fewer corners on your roster if absolutely need be. Next year will have three corners with multiple years of experience, but at this point, only one, Ware, has proven to not be a constant liability. Holmes and Sparks can be sticky, but also love to draw pass interference flags. And for all the reputations and bluster of defensive backs coach David Gibbs, the 2019 Tiger defense had fewer interceptions than the 2018 Tiger defense, and only ONE defensive back had an interception: safety Ronnell Perkins, who had two. If the physicality leads to flags, it also needs to lead to turnovers and that has been absent in this group the past few years. If Shearin and Burdine can push the starters, that’s an absolute good thing to see. I’d expect no corners to be taken in the 2020 crop, especially since four of the six schollys left will (should) be going to linemen.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Vanderbilt
Tyree Gillespie
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Safeties

5 + 2

Returning Producers: Tyree Gillespie (SR), Joshuah Bledsoe (SR)

Other Returnees: Martez Manuel (SO), Stacy Brown (R-FR), Jalani Williams (R-FR)

Commits: Tyler Jones (FR), Jaylon Carlies (FR)

Now that I’ve seen the returning safeties, it makes even more sense to me now to move Aidan Harrison - currently listed as a (super lightweight) linebacker - over to the safety position. Gillespie might be one of the better safeties Mizzou has had this side of William Moore/Pig Brown, and while Bledsoe isn’t super great at covering slot receivers, he is excellent in delivering the boom in run support. Past those two, however, is a load of youth looking to step in. Between Manuel, Brown and Williams, someone will be starting this year and being backed up by true freshmen. That means the 2021 safeties are going to be super young so the more rotation and experience they can establish in 2020 the better. Despite playing three safeties on the field and only having seven, I think that’s a manageable group to deploy for a full year. Don’t expect any new offers to go out for 2020.