Make a list of Missouri’s best players over the last decade and you’re likely to come up with a pretty long list of defensive players. The Tigers, historically, are known for the high-flying offense, but they’ve played some pretty darn good defense, too.
That wasn’t always the case in 2020. The Tigers defense yo-yo’d from good to bad depending on the drive, much less the game. They looked great against Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but the last three weeks in particular left a bit of a sour taste.
Some of that is to be expected. This was a year unlike any other. There were opt-outs and injuries and transfers and COVID-19 concerns. The Tigers offense was certainly affected by some of those same issues, but not to the same degree as the defense. Missouri played the final week of the season with three freshman starters in the secondary and the Tigers’ week one starting quarterback finished the year playing significant snaps at safety.
It was just that kind of year. Keep that in mind as we hand out Missouri’s defensive grades.
Defensive Ends: C+
The Grade: C+
The Stat: Trajan Jeffcoat was tied for second in the SEC with six sacks this season.
The Analysis: Alright, let’s be honest, Missouri is lucky Trajan Jeffcoat returned from his one year hiatus from the football program. He was worthy of his first team All-SEC honors. Six sacks, six tackles-for-loss, seven quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Not too shabby.
Unfortunately, those statistics account for, well, the vast majority of Missouri’s defensive end production this season. Isaiah McGuire had three sacks. Tre Williams added two of his own before opting out and deciding to transfer. Chris Turner added a couple pressures.
It just wasn’t pretty. If Jeffcoat didn’t re-join the team before the season, the Tigers might not have earned a passing grade at defensive end. But he did, thankfully, and reinforcements are on the way. Six of Missouri’s 23 commitments for the 2021 class play on the edge. Two of those six come by way of JUCO, and two others are 4-star high school players. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to come in and play early.
Defensive Tackles: C-
The Grade: C-
The Stat: Darius Robinson was the only Missouri defensive tackle to record a sack on the season.
The Analysis: Injuries, COVID and Jordan Elliott’s departure really hit this position hard in 2020. Kobie Whiteside never got healthy. Akial Byers didn’t have the same kind of disruptive production as he had in previous years.
The bright spot, in my opinion, came by way of Darius Robinson. His numbers won’t jump off the page. He finished the year with 11 tackles, a sack, a hurry and a tackle-for-loss. That doesn’t sound like much, but I felt he disrupted multiple plays in every game. That’s not bad for a true sophomore who added nearly 40 pounds to his frame over the last 18 months.
There’s certainly some work to be done at the position. There’s been every indication from Eli Drinkwitz that at least one senior (and maybe multiple seniors?) from this group could be back in 2021. That would certainly help. It would also be helpful if incoming JUCO transfer Realus George or 3-star prospect Mekhi Wingo can come in and play quickly.
The Grade: B+
The Stat: Nick Bolton led the SEC in solo tackles and finished 10th in the conference in tackles for loss.
The Analysis: This is a really hard unit to grade. Bolton was an obvious choice for first-team All SEC. He was every bit the player we expected him to be, as I’ve written about seemingly a dozen times over the course of the season. That was the expectation, and it was the reality.
But the play next to him was, well, uneven.
There were moments when Devin Nicholson looked great. He served multiple roles. He rushed the passer at times, dropped in coverage other times and served as a key cog in the run defense, as well.
But there were other times - especially when Bolton wasn’t in the lineup - when Missouri’s linebackers looked a bit lost in space. Nicholson is a young player, and that’s to be expected. But it does make me a bit curious to see how the rest of the group develops heading into 2021. Missouri has blue chip players or JUCO transfers coming in at most positions of need. There are only two linebackers currently committed for 2021 at linebacker. Both are 3-star high school players. It’s a pretty tall task to expect them to come in and contribute right away.
All in all, Bolton’s play was so elite that it’s impossible to give the Tigers’ linebackers a lower grade than a B+. Slightly better play next to Bolton and there’s no doubt this would have been an ‘A.’
The Grade: B-
The Stat: Ennis Rakestraw was tied for sixth in the SEC with six pass break ups this season.
The Analysis: At full health, Missouri’s corners were pretty solid. Ennis Rakestraw was as advertised. Jarvis Ware is probably the Tigers’ best all-around corner right now. Ishmael Burdine might not ready to start, but he looked much better down the stretch. For as much as we talked about Rakestraw, there probably should have been more talk about true freshman JC Carlies getting starting reps at corner down the stretch.
That’s a lot to be excited about both for the right now and for the future, and the Tigers are adding another few players to the mix going into next season.
That said, the results weren’t perfect on the field. Mizzou finished in the middle of the pack in the SEC in passing defense. The Tigers finished with just four interceptions on the year. Arkansas, Georgia and Mississippi State combined to throw for nine touchdowns and two interceptions in Missouri’s last three games. The youth showed itself at times and led to some untimely blown coverages. That what happens when the Tigers are forced into playing so many young players in the secondary (out of necessity). I think the results will be better a year from now. This might be the position with the brightest future on Missouri’s defense.
The Grade: A
The Stat: Tyree Gillespie, Joshuah Bledsoe and Martez Manuel combined this season for 15 pass break ups.
The Analysis: You won’t find many safety trios better than Gillespie, Bledsoe and Manuel. All three have different skill sets. They all have the ability to play against the run or the pass. And they all play with passion that the rest of the defense is able to feed off.
Think of Missouri’s biggest defensive plays of the year. There’s a really good chance one of these three was involved. And it’s going to pay off shortly for Gillespie and Bledsoe as they work their way into the NFL.
Gillespie is probably Missouri’s most underrated player. He fills the lanes as well as just about any safety in the conference. The only thing he’s missing on his resume is interceptions. Bledsoe gets beat in one-on-one coverage more often than you would like, but some of that is also because he’s drawing the most difficult matchups. And Manuel developed into a legitimate star by the end of the season.
It’s going to hurt losing both Gillespie and Bledsoe after the season they had, but Manuel is a nice player to build around heading into 2021.