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Mizzou Recruiting Roundtable: Defensive Line and Linebackers

How is Eli Drinkwitz equipping Missouri to regain its status as a pass-rushing hub, and who’s in line to captain the defense of the future?

football recruiting 2019

In Mizzou’s two most successful seasons of the 21st century, the offense was the primary driver of success. 2007 had Chase Daniel, Tony Temple, Jeremy Maclin, and many more, while 2013 had James Franklin, Henry Josey, DGB and L’Damian Washington, amongst others.

Despite all the offensive success, though, quarterbacks and playmakers haven’t been the main branding point of Mizzou Football. That’s been #DLineZou, a reputation that came to fruition in the early SEC years on the strength of pass-rushers like Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray. While others have followed in their footsteps, Missouri’s formidable defensive line has taken a step back in recent years, failing to produce any DE NFL Draft picks since Charles Harris.

In the latest edition of our recruiting roundtable, we’re looking at the 2020 roster and how things are shaping up in the trenches and the linebacking corps. What candidates currently on the roster could help the Tigers regain their status as a hub for fearsome pass-rushers? And how has Missouri’s recruiting strategy played into the dip in production we’ve seen over the past few years?

2020 Mizzou Football: Defensive Line and Linebackers

Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshmen
Seniors Juniors Sophomores Freshmen
Jamal Brooks (LB) Jatorian Hansford (DL) Darius Robinson (DL) Montra Edwards (DL)
Chris Turner (DL) Nick Bolton (LB) Devin Nicholson (LB) Will Norris (LB)
Sci Martin, Jr. (DL) Cameron Wilkins (LB) Isaiah McGuire (DL) Johnny Walker (LB)
Kobie Whiteside (DL) Ben Key (DL) Gerald Nathan, Jr. (LB) Jamie Pettway (LB - RS)
Chris Daniels (DL) Aubrey Miller, Jr. (LB - RS) Chad Bailey (LB - RS) Z'Core Brooks (DL - RS)
Antar Thompson (DL - RS)
Markell Utsey (DL - RS)
Tre Williams (DL - RS)

Once a bastion for fearsome pass-rushers, Mizzou has lost the plot over the past few years. However, the commitment of Travion Ford could signify a change. What’s contributed more to the pass-rushing woes — scheme or recruiting?

Mississippi v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Nate Edwards, Football Editor: This is a fantastic question and while the answer is obviously “BOTH.” the fact of the matter is that recruiting is, and will always be, the reason for any program’s highs or lows.

2015 was the last year that Missouri had an elite defensive line. The DL coach was Craig Kuligowski and the roster had the following scholarship defensive ends:

  • JR Marcell Frazier
  • RS SO Charles Harris
  • RS FR Walter Brady
  • RS FR Rocel McWilliams
  • RS FR Spencer Williams
  • FR Nate Howard
  • FR Josh Moore

One upperclassman, six underclassmen, five of which had some version of “freshman” listed in their class. So the future was young and bright, right? Well, here’s what happened to those guys:

  • Frazier graduated after the 2016 season
  • Harris was drafted after the 2016 season
  • Brady was dismissed after the 2015 season
  • McWilliams transferred after the 2015 season
  • Williams transferred after the 2016 season
  • Howard was dismissed after the 2016 season
  • Moore transferred after the 2016 season

So, of the young crop of defensive end talent on the 2015 roster, recruited by GP and Coach Kool, all of them were gone by 2016. So who did Coach Odom and his (several) d-line coaches target?

  • Tre Williams, the only defensive end signed in the 2016 class
  • Nate Anderson, a JUCO stopgap from the 2017 recruiting class
  • Chris Turner, a 2-star project from 2017 that is.... still a 2-star project.
  • Daniel Parker, Jr., a 4-star 2018 signee who plays tight end
  • Trajan Jeffcoat, who saw action in every game of 2018 and then was no longer part of the team
  • Jatorian Hansford, a contributor in 2018 and starter in 2019
  • Shemar Pearl, a 2019 signee who didn’t have the grades to make it to campus
  • Arvell Ferguson, also from the 2019 class, who also didn’t hit the books hard enough
  • Isaiah McGuire, who played in 4 games in 2019 and kept his redshirt but is (probably?) a defensive tackle now
  • Z’Core Brooks, a redshirt freshman in 2020

So that’s four recruiting classes with 10 defensive ends signed, 8 of which made it to campus, 6 of whom are still on the roster (and two who don’t play defensive end). Odom’s starting defensive ends in his four years were: a walk-on, undeveloped 2-stars, a guy who was off the team for nine months, and several freshman. When those types of guys are your starters at defensive end in the SEC, you have not done a good enough job of stocking up on talent. And that lack of talent is an accurate label for the the Missouri defensive end position of the past four years.

Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: Players, players, players. It’s always about the players. Has scheme played a role? Of course. There was a time when they were playing that ridiculous read-and-react style that made no sense. But that’s been gone for the last couple years. That excuse was no longer valid. And then the talent dipped.

The list of Mizzou defensive ends with more than 3 sacks the last 3 years: Marcell Frazier (2017). That’s... The end of the list.

And that’s inexcusable. It simply can’t happen. Not at a program like Missouri. The defensive line was the lifeblood of the defense for a decade. And for the last few years, it’s been left dormant.

Players make plays. And in recent years the Tigers simply haven’t had the players.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Manager: You can have the most aggressive scheme in the world, but if you don’t have guys that can get after the QB, you’re not going to make it happen. Missouri under Barry Odom failed miserably in that regard, failing to land any game-breaking DEs under his watch — unless of course Tre Williams finally realizes all of his potential in his senior year and the class of 2019 produces some gems.

In his short time as head coach, Eli Drinkwitz has rightly identified this lack of production and countered it with a ready-made DE transfer in Benjamin Key and one of Missouri’s highest-rated recruits of the past five years in Travion Ford.

One place Missouri hasn’t struggled is with defensive tackles, with DTs going in two consecutive drafts. Which newcomers (or current commits) have the chance to continue that line of succession?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Florida at Missouri

Nate Edwards: Defensive tackle is so deep right now that it’s going to be tough - and unrealistic - to see younger guys crack the rotation. Kobie Whiteside, Markell Utsey, and Akial Byers will be the most consistent in the rotation and each have shown competency and flashes of brilliance. Whiteside, in particular, seems to be a star in the making as Pro Football Focus seems to be a big fan of his. However, I’ve heard nothing but great things about my cousin Montra Edwards* and if he were to make his way into the rotation at some point that would be great for the long term projections of the line.

*no, he is not my cousin

Brandon Kiley: There aren’t a whole lot of options here. The Tigers added Ben Key, Dylan Spencer and Montra Edwards in the 2020 class. Mekhi Wingo is the only 2021 defensive tackle to commit to the Tigers thus far.

Among those four names, I’ll go with Montra Edwards as the most likely to contribute early. He’s a massive human being at 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds. He won’t do it the same way guys like Terry Beckner Jr., Jordan Elliott or Kobie Whiteside did. At his peak, Edwards projects to be a run-stuffer that plugs the holes in the interior as a nose tackle. It will look different stylistically, but it’s important nonetheless.

Josh Matejka: The Tigers had to put up a fight to keep 2020 commit Montra Edwards away from other SEC schools, so it’s hard to not be excited about his potential. Personally, I’m extremely excited about the commitment of 2021 DT Mekhi Wingo out of DeSmet. He’s a First-Team All-State player, and his highlights are hilarious. He’s a brick house on the interior and seems like the type of immovable force that we got used to seeing in players like Jordan Elliott and Terry Beckner, Jr. (when he was at his best).

Nick Bolton is Missouri’s star at linebacker, but there’s a lot of depth behind him with six sophomores and freshman. Which youngsters are you most excited about, and what sort of LB recruits should the staff be targeting?

Missouri v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Nate Edwards: I’m hoping we can see Chad Bailey in action this year. He was a 4-star coming out of high school, but has seen minimal playing time since Nick Bolton was too busy being awesome all the time. I’m also curious to see if Gerald Nathan or Jamie Pettway see some action: both showed tremendous athleticism in high school that should translate to the current defensive scheme.

If we stick to a 4-2-5 you don’t need as many traditional linebackers; traditional meaning a big, beefy, run-stuffing guy in the middle and two taller/quicker linebackers on the weakside and strongside of the formation. With the 4-2-5 stressing speed over size and implementing a third safety that can double as a linebacker, you only need a few thumpers in the middle and more athleticism in the linebacking corps, guys who can play the line and play the pass in zone schemes. So the staff needs to look for bigger safeties who play the run decently well and recruit them, pack on a few pounds, and deploy them as a weakside linebacker. Conversely, you could recruit smaller, faster linebackers who clog pass lanes reliably. That’s what I would go with, anyway... but luckily I’m not a college recruiter.

Brandon Kiley: It’s a fascinating position, isn’t it? Cameron Wilkins came in with some rave reviews from the coaching staff, until suddenly we saw a whole lot of Devin Nicholson on the field last season. Chad Bailey was a highly-rated recruit back in 2018 and still has that kind of potential.

All of that said, I’m not sure any of them hold the same kind of potential to reach the level we saw from Bolton or Cale Garrett last season.

The thing I most want to see out of this coaching staff is a willingness to recruit linebackers that can run. The way the game is going now-a-days, you have to be able to run sideline-to-sideline and cover running backs out of the backfield. If you can’t do that, you simply can’t play three downs. So, athleticism has to be at a premium. Size and speed is the name of the game, and it’s no different at the linebacker position.

Josh Matejka: One position Odom’s staff knew how to evaluate was the linebacker — they turned Bolton into an All-American type player in two years. With that in mind, it’s hard not to think the best is yet to come for Chad Bailey. He was Missouri’s prize recruit in the 2018 class and has seen action in both of his seasons in Columbia. However, he’s failed to make much of an impact and has been passed on the depth chart by players like Cameron Wilkins. I’ve still got some belief in the dude, and would love to see how he performs under a new staff.

As for what sort of linebackers they should get, I think it depends on what sort of system Drinkwitz wants to put in place. If he’s serious about getting to the QB more often, do you target hybrid players in the mold of Markus Golden and Shane Ray? That doesn’t seem to be Ryan Walters’ preferred M.O.... he defers to players like Bolton or Cale Garrett, who swallow up any ray of sunlight that breaks through the defensive line. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of the rush-happy types, but it’s hard to argue with the results that Walters has been producing.