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Mizzou Football Position Previews: The Secondary

A combination of experience and high-end talent could mean a big year for the much-maligned group.

Vanderbilt 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.

The secondary has been the biggest punching bag for Missouri fans over the past few years. Getting torched by an array of backups will do that to you. What’s been the issue for the corners and safeties in the recent past?

Nate Edwards, Staff Football Analyst: Scheme, coaching staff, and youth. The seniors in the secondary have had three position coaches: Greg Brown in 2016 (who is on his TWENTY-FIRST gig in 38 years), Ryan Walters in 2017 and ‘18, and now David Gibbs. They’ve also had three different defensive coordinators: DeMontie Cross, then Barry Odom (with staff assistance), then Ryan Walters. All that shuffling while also changing scheme (4-2-5 to modified 4-3, then back to 4-2-5) while starting eight different combinations of sophomores and freshmen. I’d say it makes a TON of sense that we’ve seen mixed results over Odom’s tenure.

Gibbs is new to the group for 2019, and part of me is worried that he’s going to go too hard on coaching turnovers (which... ahem... you can’t coach since it’s all luck, but I digress). But having Walters stay at DC and fully embracing the 4-2-5 instead of just pawing at it should give some much needed stability.

Ryan Herrera, Football Beat Writer: It’s hard to point out just one reason — and even harder if you’re really trying to blame the secondary itself. There’s been a coaching carousel on defense, with seniors like DeMarkus Acy playing under three different defensive coordinators. These coaches have all brought in new defensive schemes, with different versions of 4-2-5 and 4-3 all coming into play. Then you have the fact that a lot of the guys who’ve been getting steady playing time the past couple of seasons are only just now becoming upperclassmen. And to top it all off, they’ve been trying to cover Southeastern Conference wide receivers like Deebo Samuel and Riley Ridley, who would make any secondary worry. Mix all of these factors together, and you have a lot of reasons why the secondary has been troubling under Barry Odom.

Sammy Stava, Editor: Some of the issues for the corners and safeties recently have been just getting beat against more talented wide receivers. Whether it’s Rondale Moore, Deebo Samuel, Jerry Jeudy, or Riley Ridley, those guys are going to torch a whole bunch of other team’s defenses. So that is what it is.

However, you mentioned the backups, most notably last season with David Blough throwing for 572 yards – 3 TDs and Michael Scarnecchia throwing for 249 yards – 3 TDs. That just can’t happen… but it did. I can’t quite put a finger on why it did, but maybe they spent too much time on film preparing for Elijah Sindelaar or Jake Bentley to start in those games that they completely forgot about the second string QBs.

For whatever reason, things just haven’t meshed well with the corners and safeties recently. That will happen when the players and coaching staff don’t appear to be on the same page. This secondary is under a lot of pressure heading into this season, but maybe a certain hire to the coaching staff will provide a big help to fix these issues.

AutoZone Liberty Bowl - Missouri v Oklahoma State Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Despite their reputation, both DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes have the talent to play on Sundays, and present a duo (when consistent) that’s nearly as good as any in the SEC. What do they need to do to make 2019 their breakout year?

Nate Edwards: Turnovers! I know I said you can’t coach them, but both have been extremely unlucky in their turnover rate. Combined they have defensed 28 passes; on average a college defensive back picks off about 23% of the passes he defends. 23% of 28 PDs is roughly 7. Acy and Holmes have combined for four. If they can start holding on to some of those, it’s going to give our offense way more opportunities than what we’ve been getting over the past 3 years. That might be why Odom was intrigued by Gibbs and his coaching-turnovers philosophy.

Again, it’s luck-based, and I don’t want to sacrifice stopping plays for getting burned while playing for the INT, but the law of averages should be coming around for these two, and if it does we’ll feel a lot better about their overall performance.

Ryan Herrera: They have to key in on causing turnovers, and they have to avoid the penalty flags. With new defensive backs coach David Gibbs, that first one should come. We’ve heard throughout camp that Gibbs has been preaching turnovers, and with his penchant for turning secondaries into ballhawks, his message is supported. Gibbs’ teams are usually among the best at forcing turnovers, while Missouri’s turnover rate has been minimal under Odom. If guys like DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes buy into his ideology, we should see a huge bump in the Tigers’ turnover production.

With the increased aggressiveness on defense, though, there’s a chance for an increase in penalties, too. Missouri’s secondary hasn’t had the reputation of being players who can avoid getting flagged, and the refs will have more opportunities to blow the whistle with the Tigers trying to make those plays more often. Acy and Holmes have a ton of potential and should turn in a productive season, but they’ll need a season’s worth of clean play and an uptick in turnovers to show they’ve truly broken out.

Sammy Stava: DeMarkus Acy and Chrisitian Holmes may have exactly what they need to have breakout seasons this year. That is defensive back coach David Gibbs, who Barry Odom hired back in January. Previously, Gibbs spent time at Houston from 2013-2014 and at Texas Tech from 2015-2018. You make not think of Houston and Texas Tech as defensive juggernauts, but Gibbs is a turnover wizard wherever he goes. In 2013, Houston led the nation with 43 takeaways; in 2017 Texas Tech was sixth in the country with 29 turnovers.

During his time at Houston and Texas Tech from 2013-2017, Gibbs’ defenses forced a combined 140 turnovers, which is tied for most in the country among any defensive coordinator in that span. Meanwhile, Missouri’s turnover production under Barry Odom has declined in every season, going from 20 to 17 to 16.

This seems like a hire that will pay dividends for Missouri’s defense. This also has the potential for Acy and Holmes to thrive under Gibbs’ system with a more aggressive, ballhawking approach as they look to be the leaders of the secondary.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Georgia at Missouri Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The safety depth chart is entirely made up of juniors and seniors, making them a key component of the team’s defensive leadership. How do you see the back end of the defense performing as the year goes on?

Nate Edwards: Well... they better be good! This is what slogging through multiple years of deep ball attacks and whiffed coverages from our deep secondary has lead to: a core group of upperclassmen who have seen it all and are finally ready to shine. Success in the secondary is so reliant on previous experience and the entire group finally has that. If they do not perform at a high level this year then there needs to be some serious reconsideration on the evaluation process for our scheme and player fit.

Adding a third safety to add speed to the defense is a move I welcome and should help us cover tight ends and running backs better. And if our corners play to their potential, that frees up the safeties to make better reads and be in a better position to help. I’m probably too excited for what this secondary can do, but I can’t help it — I feel like we’ve all earned that giddiness for what we’ve gone through.

Ryan Herrera: I think there have been enough growing pains with the group over the past few seasons that we’ll finally start seeing them shine. Continuity and experience go a long way, and these players are all finally getting to the point where they’ve seen enough and can finally turn that into consistent play. Plus, I think that third safety spot is going to really help out. Too many times last season we saw this group get beat deep in the secondary, but the additional safety should help free the other two to get back and cut off the deep ball. I’ve said before, though, this secondary has been suspect, and I think we still need to see the Tigers on the field before we can really give them our stamp of approval.

Sammy Stava: Entering his fourth season as a head coach, this is officially Barry Odom’s team now. Every player on this roster he and his staff have recruited, which should bode well going into this year– it has to. This is the season where we can truly judge where the direction of the program is heading and what to make of this defense. We’ve seen glimpses of what this defense can become under Odom, but just haven’t found the full consistency yet. Maybe, just maybe, it all comes together this season. It has the potential to.

Having an experienced safety unit of juniors and seniors this season could go a long way for this secondary. Just like most teams, I think we’ll see this group get better and better as the season goes on. Not only can Ronnell Perkins, Tyree Gillepsie, Jordan Ulmber, and Joshua Bledsoe be big contributors for this season, their leadership can provide a key role for promising in-state freshman Jalani Williams and Martez Manuel for the future.