Eli Drinkwitz knew changes needed to be made. The Tigers had just allowed 62 points and 683 yards at home against Tennessee. The Vols racked up 458 yards on the ground and the only reason they didn’t have more is because they took their foot off the gas in the second half.
The changes were almost immediate. It was announced on Sunday that defensive line coach Jethro Franklin had been fired. On Tuesday, Drinkwitz told the media there would be no depth chart for the week.
“There’s no depth chart. There’s Tuesday’s practice,” Drinkwitz told the media on Tuesday. “After Tuesday and Wednesday, we’ll have a better feel for who we think is going to play. But there’s no depth chart... It’s not business as usual. It’s not business as the previous 5 weeks. It’s kind of like fall camp again. Whoever plays and practices the best is going to be the one that plays Saturday.”
Practice came and went. The game began. And changes did, indeed, take place. They were subtle, but they were meaningful.
The most significant changes took place on the defensive side of the ball where freshman defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo saw his playing time skyrocket, and junior linebacker Chad Bailey emerged as a starter, leapfrogging Blaze Alldredge on the (non-existent) depth chart.
Wingo finished the game with the most snaps of any Tigers defensive lineman (62). The only Mizzou defensive players on the field for more snaps were safeties Martez Manuel (65) and J.C. Carlies (64). Bailey finished with 43 snaps, more than doubling the playing time of Alldredge (21 snaps).
Both Wingo and Bailey converted the reps into production. Wingo finished with four tackles (three solo), one tackle for loss, a QB pressure and a pick six. Chad Bailey finished third on the team with five tackles, and he combined on a tackle for loss with fellow linebacker Devin Nicholson.
The production is good to see, but it’s more about the way the two came about their production than the numbers themselves.
The Tigers needed someone along the defensive line to emerge as a potential game-changing presence. Trajan Jeffcoat is a returning All-SEC player, but his pass rush production typically comes on longer developing plays. Teams have also spent much of the year running to the opposite side from Jeffcoat. Mizzou was looking for a building block, and Wingo has taken that opportunity and run with it.
#Mizzou made a couple subtle lineup changes on Saturday against North Texas, and they paid dividends. Mekhi Wingo is the Tigers' best defensive tackle at slipping blocks. This was a nice play in the backfield early in the game. pic.twitter.com/7nF5n3JVxX— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 11, 2021
Watch the play above. This is the kind of play Mizzou had been missing. It’s the type of play we saw a lot of from Terry Beckner Jr. and Jordan Elliott. Wingo wins immediately. He swims over the right guard, slips behind he pulling tackle and meets the running back three yards in the backfield. Tackle for loss on second and two to set up an early third down. A huge play early in the game.
Bailey’s impact on the game was more subdued. His numbers won’t jump out at you. He wasn’t perfect - he got sucked inside on a couple runs the same way the Tigers’ other linebackers have at times this season. But he brings an element of physicality to the game that Mizzou desperately needed in the front seven.
Chad Bailey took advantage of his extended opportunities against North Texas. He wasn't perfect, but he did a really good job of shedding blocks. He brings some physicality at the point of attack. pic.twitter.com/3lomgzKDb4— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 11, 2021
Watch Bailey on that play. He’s the linebacker closest to the camera. He sees the linemen pulling and immediately follows them toward the sideline. He immediately sheds a block from the tight end, takes on the block from the pulling tackle and meets the running back at the line of scrimmage for a one-yard gain.
It might seem like a little thing. I assure you, it’s not. That’s the type of play Mizzou’s linebackers haven’t been making this year. Their inability to shed blocks has been a massive issue. It remains to be seen if Bailey can do against Texas A&M’s offensive line what he did against North Texas’. But this was an encouraging start for a player worth seeing more of down the stretch.
This Missouri defense needed to find players who could step up and make plays. Wingo and Bailey both answered the call in a big way against North Texas. Both could be seen as building blocks for the future.
But first we get to see if they can stack back-to-back quality starts with the Aggies coming to town.