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Martez Manuel leads a secondary with loads of potential... and question marks

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There’s some exciting new (and rising) talent in the secondary, but is the necessary experience there as well?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Believe it or not, game week is nearly here for Mizzou Football. To prepare you for the coming season, we’ll be previewing each position group with a roundtable Q&A every Monday.

Missouri lost a lot of talent in the secondary from last year, but made big splashes in the transfer market, specifically pulling CBs Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV out of Tulsa. Has the coaching staff done enough to upgrade/maintain the talent level in the secondary?

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Navy Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Dryden, Staff Football Analyst: I think when you evaluate the net result to what has come in, versus what has come out, you can argue Missouri’s secondary is going to be more talented than it was last season. They lose two NFL caliber safeties, but they also add in two guys who are probably NFL cornerbacks as well. They added in a few talented freshman like Daylan Carnell and Davion Sistrunk, and retain Ennis Rakestraw and Martez Manuel. There’s a lot to like in this group, and the benefit of having some guys forced into playing time last year could provide dividends in that Missouri will have plenty of options.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: If you look at the balance of the secondary, the overall unit has likely maintained quality rather than gained overall. Evans and Green automatically upgrade the corner group, especially with guys like Ennis Rakestraw available as viable options. But the safeties, which lost both Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe, will have to display some big improvements to cover lost production. Martez Manuel (see next question) should thrive in a bigger role, but the Tigers need at least two other strong options for the safety group not to text at least a minor step back in 2021.

Parker Gillam, Football Beat Writer: From an experience standpoint, I see very little drop off. Tulsa was one of the better defensive units in the nation last season, and Evans and Green went up against guys like Tylan Wallace, Shane Beuchele, and Dillon Gabriel and held their own last season (not to mention also took on Mike Leach’s air raid in the bowl game). In terms of talent, it remains to be seen if these two can consistently take on SEC wide receivers on a week-to-week basis, but I have little concern knowing how successful this tandem was last season.

While Nick Bolton was the unquestioned leader of the defense last year, Martez Manuel stood out as a player who could step into a leadership role once Bolton left. With his status as captain now confirmed, how do you see Manuel leading this year’s defense?

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Dryden: Manuel was certainly a leader for the defense last year, and I expect him to be the same this year. He is a vocal guy, yet at the same time, lets his play do a lot of his talking.

Last year’s defense had a few different guys who were leaders at various points. Bolton, Bledsoe and Gillespie all showed that they can be leaders. With all three gone, it can’t just be Martez Manuel as the sole voice. There will need to be someone else to step up and accompany him in a leadership role. There will be options. Blaze Alldredge, maybe Kobie Whiteside. Regardless, the defense will need more than just one guy to be that vocal leader.

Josh Matejka: Manuel embodies everything Eli Drinkwitz seems to want his defense to be — aggressive, vocal, hard-nosed, and (in a more minor way) local. Manuel brings the same edge that Bolton brought, but he brings it from the back, which ought to give the entire secondary more of a personality as they follow their position group leader.

My only worry is that Manuel (a junior this season) may be held to a higher standard than he may be ready to meet. Nick Bolton (a senior last season) was a borderline first-round NFL pick; outside of defensive lineman, how many defensive players come out of Mizzou with that level of prestige? I have no doubts Manuel can be just as effective of a leader as his former teammate, but I hope fans will bear with any growing Manuel still has to do on the field. If he takes a similar step to the one he took last season, perhaps my worries will be unnecessary.

Parker Gillam: From everything we have been hearing, Manuel is the man on this defense. Every player on the team has a massive amount of respect for the work and dedication he puts in, and the coaching staff trusts him. A lot rides on this season for Manuel, as his NFL hopes can either be solidified or dashed based on his performance as one of the captains of this team. He brings plenty of experience and versatility to the table, but playing without a guy like Bolton will be a stark change, at least at first.

Mizzou’s youth was tested early and often in 2020, and they won’t get any breaks coming into 2021. Which underclassmen will be key contributors for the Tigers this season?

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Dryden: Rakestraw will be in the mix at one of the corner spots, but if I’m thinking someone somewhat under the radar, it’d be JC Carlies. He recieved plenty of snaps last season next to Rakestraw, and held up okay at times. They seem to like what he can bring to the table as a bigger corner. It also wouldn’t surprise me to see someone like Ish Burdine, or Daylan Carnell to sneak into the two deep either.

Josh Matejka: The amount of youth in the secondary leaves an unavoidable truth staring Missouri in the face — they’ll need at least one underclassmen corner and safety to play a major role in 2021. The obvious pick at corner is Ennis Rakestraw, and for good reason. As we thought might happen, Rakestraw took some serious lumps in his freshman season, but he also flashed some of his vast potential. He’ll be counted on heavily to play starting snaps, even if he’s not always the first guy up ahead of Evans and Green.

At safety, there aren’t many options to choose from. Stacy Brown will have the inside track to starting time as a junior, and Jalani Williams will have to break out or be relegated to a bench role at some point. Really the only true underclass option on the roster would be Tyler Hibbler, an exciting, underrated pull in the vaunted 2021 class. A healthy amount of Hibbler starts means the safety position is probably struggling to stay afloat, but none of the guys ahead of him have done much to secure the spot in the past few years. Until someone grabs ahold of the other starting spot and make it theirs, Hibbler should have as much of a shot as anyone to take it.

Parker Gillam: Jalani Williams is the guy I look at. Now a redshirt sophomore, people are looking for him to live up to his 4-star billing, and the secondary needs him to step into a larger role. As either a starter or rotation player, he needs to be able to provide quality snaps for this secondary, otherwise the depth of the unit will really be a point of concern.