No position group was affected by COVID-19 and injury as much as the defensive line for Missouri in 2020. It was a revolving door of starters throughout last season, meaning that plenty of guys have experience up front now.
Still, improvement is needed. The Tigers have ranked among the worst in the SEC with 38 total sacks in the past two seasons. Compare that to how Georgia led the SEC with 33 last season (9 games), and Florida topped the conference with 46 in 2019. To contend with the elite in the SEC East, the Tigers have to start getting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
An influx of new talent will certainly push the veterans. With three highly-touted incoming freshmen set to push for playing time, it is anybody’s guess as to who takes the field first on September 4th against Central Michigan.
There is one known commodity. After being dismissed from the team in 2019, Trajan Jeffcoat was reinstated by Eli Drinkwitz shortly after he was hired. It proved to be a great move by the new man in charge.
Jeffcoat racked up six sacks last season, the most of any Missouri defensive end since Charles Harris in 2016. The redshirt junior was named to the Bednarik Award Watch List (best defensive player) this offseason following that breakout 2020 campaign.
At 6’4”, 276 lbs., Jeffcoat has a unique mix of length, size, and speed that allowed him to terrorize opposing offenses. He’s able to power past an offensive tackle but also track down a scrambling quarterback outside the pocket, and that versatility makes him very difficult to scheme for.
Many expect him to be the next great Mizzou pass rusher, and plenty of NFL scouts will have their eyes on him this season.
Outside of Jeffcoat, the coaching staff is looking for another returning edge rusher to step up and take some pressure off of their star. Junior Isaiah McGuire is the most popular pick.
McGuire is coming off of a solid 2020 campaign in which he recorded three sacks, and the Tulsa product fits a mold that Eli Drinkwitz seems to like with his pass rushers. Jeffcoat’s size was previously mentioned, all three of the freshmen edge rushers come in at 6’2” or above, and McGuire stands at 6’4”. Drinkwitz clearly wants length on the edge, and McGuire certainly has it.
Chris Turner, Darius Robinson, Jatorian Hansford, and Cannon York all started games at some point last season, in large part due to the frequent absence of key players. None of them necessarily stood out, but they are all upperclassmen that have plenty of experience in the SEC.
The incoming Travion Ford and Kyran Montgomery likely have more upside, but they will need time to adjust to this level of play and physicality in the trenches. That means that outside of Jeffcoat, Missouri needs players to step up at defensive end.
The good news: working opposite Jeffcoat means that most of the attention goes towards him. There will be plenty of one-on-one opportunities for McGuire, Turner and all of the returning defensive ends, it will just be up to them to take advantage of them.
A by-committee approach (similar to what took place in 2020) may be the solution until one or two players separate themselves with consistent production. Whether that be one of the veterans or freshmen remains to be seen.
Jeffcoat receives most of the hype, and rightfully so, but he will only see more double teams and chip blocks this season. One of the major keys for this defense to take the next step in 2021 will be finding another pass-rushing threat to work alongside him and take some of the pressure off.
On top of that, another part of the job for the returning defensive ends this season will be to educate the incoming freshmen. The trio of Ford, Montgomery, and Daniel Robledo have tremendous potential and can make an impact right away, but they are still very raw. It is a tall order to start as a freshman at any spot, but the war in the trenches in the SEC is a stark change from anything someone would experience in high school. Guiding these young guys both on and off the field is a role every one of the upperclassmen needs to take seriously, because their legacies can live on through the development of these freshmen.
It was Michael Sam and Kony Ealy in 2013, and then Shane Ray and Markus Golden in 2014. If Missouri has aspirations to win the SEC East again, they will need to fill in the blank next to Trajon Jeffcoat and bring back the intimidating presence that the Missouri defensive line used to have.