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Mizzou Football Position Previews: The Linebackers

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Led by Cale Garrett, the Tigers’ linebacking corp represents the bedrock of Missouri defense looking to break out.

Georgia v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Welcome back to another season of Missouri football at Rock M Nation. Like every season, we’ll be running down the list of position groups, previewing each one with members of our football coverage team. You can find links to all pieces in the series here.

No breakout Mizzou team of the past has gone without a true stud quarterbacking the defense. This year it feels like Cale Garrett is ready to assume that role. What is it about his game that makes him such a natural leader?

Nate Edwards, Staff Football Analyst: I’ve never met Mr. Garrett, nor have I seen how he practices or how he is with his teammates, so really, the only thing I see that demonstrates his innate leadership is the position he plays and his production. Much like the quarterback on offense, the starting middle linebacker calls a lot of the shots on the field for the defense, so a lot of leadership is tied to that position. But looking at Garrett’s career, he has just been consistent and productive. He took over for the injured Michael Scherer in 2015 and hasn’t missed a game since. He’s logged at least 60 solo tackles each year as well as 6 TFLs. That demonstrates a good knowledge of the playbook, good instincts, and I guess what coaches would call a “good nose for the ball.” So if you never miss game/hardly miss a snap, have good instincts, have good skill, and call adjustments on the field? Those are all the qualities I’d look for in a good leader.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: I’ve never been partial to the term “Football IQ,” mostly because I believe there are some problematic implications in the way it’s been used in the past. However, Garrett fits the type of guy who would classically be described as having a high Football IQ. He doesn't overwhelm opposing defenders with his athleticism or strength, but he makes great reads and always seems to be in the right place. In that way he reminds me a lot of Kentrell Brothers, who similarly developed his reputation by having an insatiable nose for where the ball was going to be.

To top it off, Garrett is one of the most vocal players on his side of the ball. It may be a product of his position as a team leader, but Garrett is constantly talking to his teammates and putting them in the best position to succeed. It’s a small thing that probably goes unnoticed by a lot of people, but it’s the small things that end up signifying leadership.

Sammy Stava, Editor: Missouri brings back their leading tackler in Cale Garrett, and with a defense still trying to figure things out in Barry Odom’s fourth season, this is exactly who the Tigers need for 2019, especially since Terez Hall is now gone.

Garrett’s talent, experience, and personality are what make him a natural leader for this team. He was the only non-senior to be named team captain last season, which speaks volumes to his character. Along with Kelly Bryant, you can add Garrett to the mix of the reasons why every senior decided to stay on this team despite the postseason ban. Garrett was named to the preseason second team all-SEC at SEC Media Days, which seems fair, but after leading the league in solo tackles last season, he’ll be motivated to show that he belongs on the highest level in the conference.

Big things are ahead for Missouri’s senior linebacker, and the Tigers are fortunate enough to have him for one final ride.

The Tigers saw a lot of promise in Nick Bolton last year, so much so that he’s listed as a starter on the outside. What kind of ceiling does Bolton have in this defense?

Nate Edwards: Bolton’s ceiling in this year’s defense will be interesting because we’re not totally sure what this year’s defense will be like. When Odom first got the head coaching gig, he wanted a 4 linemen-2 linebacker-5 defensive back look and, while it failed in 2016, they’ve been toying with that setup over the past few years. Now we have an officially official 2 linebacker setup with a hybrid safety and, while I’m sure Coach Bussen can give us a good film breakdown of roles/responsibilities, I’m not sure what that move will do to scheme. I can, however, hope that he can emulate the since-departed Terez Hall. He’s 2 inches shorter but weighs about the same and, based off of the Black and Gold game, can certainly fly around as actively as Hall did. If he can provide no drop off in production this year from what Hall did last year (71 tackles, 9 TFLs, 5 sacks, 1 INT), that would be a huge win. While I’m not sure he’ll pull a SPOOOOOOOON and meet or exceed his predecessor in his first year of starting, I think he’ll provide competent linebacker play throughout the year.

Josh Matejka: Bolton’s success as a freshman came amongst a sea of hushed tones and whispers from the offseason, a tell-tale sign of an unexpected impact contributor. While it would be hyperbolizing to say he exceeded expectations for last season, he certainly did more than what you would expect of most players his age.

Bolton’s athleticism makes him a Terez Hall-esque threat on the outside, a guy that will both chase down faster backs on the outside and have some success rushing the quarterback. It would be unfair to expect the same level of production out of him — jumping at least 50 tackles and four sacks would be for anyone, much less a sophomore — but Bolton will certainly help mitigate Hall’s loss. If he can help the pass rush in any meaningful way while growing in his coverage ability, Bolton should be well on his way to a very successful career as a Tiger.

Sammy Stava: Nick Bolton appeared in 10 games for Missouri last season, which bodes well for him having gone through that much experience as a freshman. The big stage doesn’t appear to be a problem for Bolton, either. He got his opportunity in unfortunate circumstances when Terez Hall got ejected for targeting the Alabama game. Replacing Hall, Bolton rose to the occasion and provided a big spark to the defense with eight total tackles in Bryant-Denny Stadium. In the Liberty Bowl against Oklahoma State, he had four tackles in the game. The ceiling is very high for Bolton, and it can go higher with the leader Cale Garrett helping him in the middle.

The linebacker depth chart lists a lot of names we’ve heard about for a long time - Jamal Brooks, Aubrey Miller Jr, Chad Bailey, etc. Who steps up as the third guy in a potentially dangerous trio of starters?

Nate Edwards: I can’t help but pull for Aubrey Miller Jr, simply because he’s been such a tremendous ambassador and recruiter for the team. From a class-balance standpoint, I’d prefer Chad Bailey be that young impact guy. However, just looking at the linebacker depth chart, there’s so much talent and good guys that I want to see do well that I can’t pick just one. It would be really nice to see an out-of-state blue chip prospect find success, and Bailey would be that guy.

Josh Matejka: Aubrey Miller Jr has been a fan favorite — at least this fan’s favorite, anyway — since he arrived on campus. He’s an outspoken leader who loves Mizzou and recruits just as well as some of the coaches on staff. He’s everything you want out of a program ambassador... except for his lack of on-field success. It’s not as if it’s entirely Miller Jr’s fault; he’s had some bad injury luck that’s mostly kept him from developing fully.

But the junior from Memphis is seemingly healthy now and, if talk from camp has any bearing, he’s knocking on the door of some regular playing time. Like I said above with Bolton, it would be too much to expect an astounding leap in production. However, Miller Jr (along with guys like Bailey and Brooks) has the chance to offset the hole Hall left behind and develop a fully-developed reputation as one of Mizzou fans’ favorite True Sons.

Sammy Stava: Heading into his junior season, if Missouri can get something out of Aubrey Miller Jr, that can be huge for the potential of this linebacker core. A broken leg injury has sidelined Miller Jr for most of his college career, but there may be an opportunity for him to burst onto the scene this season. Remember back in the 2017 season, after the disastrous 35-3 loss to Purdue when Missouri held a players-only meeting and Miller Jr, a freshman, was one of the most outspoken players? There’s something to be said for that. There’s still a promising career remaining for Miller Jr if he can stay healthy.