Missouri has a bit of a conundrum next season. The best players on the defense are about to head to the NFL. Nick Bolton is one of the best players in the country. Joshuah Bledsoe has made some of the Tigers’ biggest plays of the year. Tyree Gillespie is a highly underrated player in the secondary.
That’s a lot of talent to replace in one offseason.
And, let’s be honest, there’s no way to replace those guys one-for-one. Whoever replaces Bolton at linebacker won’t be the player he was. That’s nearly impossible. Gillespie and Bledsoe are two of the most experienced safeties in the SEC. It’s going to be tough to replace those three no matter who steps into their respective positions.
It will come down to the current players also taking a step forward. Even the current defenders playing at a high level will have to take another step. And there’s one player in particular who seems like a prime candidate to do so.
Of course, I’m referencing sophomore safety Martez Manuel.
The former three star safety out of Columbia Rock Bridge played in all 12 games last year, starting one game in place of the suspended Gillespie (targeting). It’s always nice to see a young player get on the field, but his production didn’t exactly follow suit. He finished the 2019 season with four total tackles.
The Tigers are running a new defense this season, though, and I’m not sure anyone has benefitted more than Manuel.
Walters high on the play of strong safety Martez Manuel.— Dave Matter (@Dave_Matter) December 9, 2020
FWIW, I've got him on my All-SEC radar. 52 tackles, 5 tfl, 3 breakups, consistently high PFF grades
If you watch the NFL, you probably know the name Jamal Adams. He was the sixth overall pick by the Jets a few years ago, and he was traded this offseason to the Seahawks. He’s technically listed as a safety, but he plays a hybrid role that’s hard to describe. On any given play he could line up on the edge, he might be in the slot across from a wide receiver or he could be lined up in the box to help Seattle defend the run.
That is, more or less, the role Manuel fills in the Tigers defense.
#Mizzou sophomore safety Martez Manuel has developed into a heck of a player. He had a sack and 2 TFL's on Saturday against Georgia. He's up to 2.5 sacks & 7 TFL on the season. pic.twitter.com/bsUviEgZyD— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) December 15, 2020
He still has some work to do in coverage, but he’s developed into a heck of a player around the line of scrimmage. That ability was on full display on Saturday against Georgia when he racked up another sack.
And it’s not jut the pass rush he adds coming off the edge. Manuel made a heck of a play on the ball during the Tigers’ comeback a couple weeks ago against Arkansas. Who knows how the rest of that game plays out if not for Manuel’s third down pass breakup.
This was a HUGE play vs. Arkansas that probably didn't get talked about enough.#Mizzou down 33-23 w/ 5:30 left in the 3Q. Manuel breaks up what would have been a 1st down catch that put ARK in FG range. ARK punts. MU scores a FG on the next drive to make it a 1 possession game. pic.twitter.com/fJ7VXLJ0lV— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) December 15, 2020
Manuel is the jack of all trades. He’s racked up 59 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and three passes defended on the year. The only other SEC players to match those numbers this season are Florida linebacker Ventrell Miller and Mississippi State linebacker Aaron Brule. The only off-ball Mizzou defenders to match those numbers in a single season in the last two decades are Kentrell Brothers, Zaviar Gooden and Sean Weatherspoon.
You get the point. Manuel is producing at a really high level. And he’s only a sophomore.
With a little work on his pass coverage, Manuel is the type of player that can be an absolute nightmare for opposing offensive coordinators to game plan against. You never know where he’s going to line up. He changes the numbers in the box against the run, he’s a heck of a pass rusher off the edge and he’s more than capable of holding up in coverage.
Losing guys like Bolton, Gillespie and Bledsoe on the defensive side of the ball is going to hurt. There’s no way around that. But Manuel is one of the building blocks for what Missouri is hoping to accomplish defensively.
He’s finishing up a breakout season in 2020. Soon his task will be taking another step forward in 2021.