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2021 Position Postmortem: Defensive Line

A review of the defensive line performance for the 2021 season.

NCAA Football: Florida at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2021 season officially over, it’s time to break down the performance of the team position by position. We’ll look at the stats for the year, the departing players, new additions, and some predictions for what we’ll see in 2022.

This week we finally jump over to the defensive side of the ball and look at the other half of the guys who make up the SEC’s “line of scrimmage” mantra, the defensive line.

2021 Missouri Defensive Line Stats

The Missouri defensive line had an interesting character arc last season. On the one hand, it was actually a pretty decent pass rushing unit: the main six rotational guys all generated quarterback pressures above the national average but just couldn’t finish with a sack and, while that is disappointing to not be able to actually snag the quarterback, the fact that they could get close bodes well for the future of the line. The issue, of course, is that opponents weren’t really throwing the ball - especially at the beginning of the season - because the line couldn’t figure out how to stop the run. Opposing offenses simply identified where Trajan Jeffcoat was and blasted their running back to the other side or up the middle. Even with the late-season improvements the Tiger defense gave opponents 4-yards per carry on 49% of their carries (82nd), allowed a 73% success rate in short-yardage situations (90th), and only stuffed runs at or behind the line 17% of the time (76th). Again...that’s with a massive improvement over the last five games.

The other disappointing part of this line was that the youth was clearly not ready. The Drinkwitz staff brought in six freshmen defensive linemen and only two saw more than 100 snaps on the year: Mekhi Wingo and Johnny Walker, Jr. Now, it’s certainly not expected for any freshman to step onto an SEC team and expect to start immediately but, thanks to injuries and youth, the line rotation was operating at thin margins for the year. Isaiah McGuire - a revelation with the extra attention paid to Trajan Jeffcoat - and Jeffcoat took almost all the snaps at end, with Chris Turner acting as the backup and then Jatorian Hansford as well once Turner was lost for the season. With Darius Robinson missing significant time due to injury, the tackle rotation was Akial Byers, Kobie Whiteside, and the aforementioned Wingo and that was basically it. Freshmen saw time against FCS and G5 teams but not when it counted.

So now what? The tackle rotation is gone thanks to graduation and transfers and one of the deepest positions on the team - defensive end - returns the only two guys who who this staff trusted to be on the field last year. It’ll be interesting to see who can break into the rotation and how this staff views their youngsters. Reading the transfer portal activity of this team leads one to believe that the defensive line youth isn’t any closer to being ready at this point...but we still have six months to go until camp starts.

The Departed

NCAA Football: North Texas at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Graduating Missouri Defensive Linemen

There are two buckets of departures from the defensive line to review: the first are the dudes who graduated.

Chris Turner was a five-year player who saw action early in his career under an Odom regime that liked his high-floor-low-ceiling style of play as they worked to quickly turn over the roster. Turner wasn’t one to make a huge play - his five-year stats equal Isaiah McGuire’s production from 2021 alone - but he was excellent at playing his assignment. A hard worker and, apparently, great teammate, Turner kept seeing the field because other guys couldn’t be relied upon to execute beyond his level. While he might not have been the next name in the long line of elite Missouri pass rushers, his service is much appreciated.

Akial Byers and Kobie Whiteside arrived in Columbia in 2017 and immediately became role players on the interior of the line. Byers played both on the edge and the interior but both became stalwarts at their respective tackle positions as they progressed through their careers. Whiteside had a standout season while starting next to Jordan Elliott in 2019 but could never recapture that magic as he battled injuries over the next two years. And while the early portions of the ‘21 campaign were certainly less than exemplary for both of them, we finally saw them round into form in the back half of the schedule.

And then we get to the transfers. Sigh.

Jatorian Hansford signed in the same class as Trajan Jeffcoat and Missouri fans immediately talked themselves into those two gentlemen being the next havoc-wreaking edge rushing tandem in the D-Line Zou tradition. However, Hansford could never break into heavy rotation until this past year when Chris Turner was lost for the season. He was a good depth piece but clearly saw the talented youth coming down the pipe and elected to finish his career at South Florida.

Mekhi Wingo, on the other hand, has hurt me. Personally. My favorite player from the 2021 signing class saw the field immediately against Central Michigan and proceeded to play in almost every game as a freshman on the interior of the line. He was a St. Louis legacy, an All-SEC Freshman performer, a clear establishment as a starter, and had at least two more years of a bright future ahead of him in Columbia.

And then he went to LSU. Boo.

I won’t fault the guy for securing the bag when it’s offered. But a tremendous Missouri narrative and potential homegrown legacy has been destroyed for Mizzou fans, and it’s going to take me a while to get over it.

The Returners

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Returning 2021 Defensive Ends
Returning 2021 Defensive Tackles

As previously mentioned Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire hogged the snaps at end for the entire year, and for good reason. Both created pressure on the quarterback on over 8% of their attempts and combined for 9.5 sacks and 27 TFLs (as a comparison: Alabama’s Will Anderson got pressure on the QB on 17% of his pass rushing attempts). Most of that was done by McGuire so it’ll be interesting to see how offenses scheme around those two.

Johnny Walker logged 2 sacks in his 100+ sacks but was relegated to the bench once the Tigers hit heavy SEC play. Arden Walker, Cannon York, and Daniel Robledo had cameos in the non-conference slate but, again, were not trusted to take many snaps in conference games.

On the interior, Darius Robinson probably would have factored more in the defensive scheme had he not been injured early. Former fullback-turned-defensive tackle Realus George is a bowling ball with knives in his attacking style but struggled to stay on the field for long stretches. As of now Ben Key is returning for his bonus COVID senior year but has only been on the field for six snaps in his two seasons as a Tiger.

The Transfers

PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - Oklahoma State v Notre Dame Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images
Incoming Transfer Defensive Linemen

Even with a better showing late, I think everyone in the Mizzou sphere realized that the defensive line needed a talent upgrade. And while there is a lot of young talent already on the roster, it’s nice to have some insurance pieces to utilize in case the development takes longer to take hold or injuries occur.

So Eli Drinkwitz went shopping in the transfer portal and got some deals.

Tyrone Hopper will be a 7th-year player who only briefly saw the field in his five years at North Carolina. He had a pretty decent 2020 but was injured in the first game of 2021 and was given an extra year. While he hasn’t shown much in his career, he’ll be the oldest (by far) and one of the more experienced dudes for the pass rushers.

On the interior, Drinkwitz nabbed Oklahoma State transfer Jayden Jernigan and for sure one former Auburn tackle, Ian Mathews*. Mathews was unable to see the field for the Tigers on the Plains while Jernigan was a sparkplug depth piece, rotating in on a deep Cowboy defense and logging 3 TFLs and 2 sacks in 2021. Given the lack of proven depth at tackle, both should be able to see the field immediately in 2022.

*Marquis Robinson is rumored to be on campus but no official word has come down yet.

The Freshmen

Marquis Gracial 2021 stats: 29 tackles (17 solo), 8 TFLs, 3 sacks

D.J. Wesolak 2021 stats: 36 tackles (12 solo), 3.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, 1 FF

Jalen Marshall 2021 stats: 61 tackles (28 solo), 10 TFLs, 4 sacks, 2 PDs

If you liked 2021’s bumper crop of talented linemen then you definitely love 2022’s haul as well. Missouri added two blue-chip linemen - both among the Top 185 players in the country - with St. Charles High’s Marquis Gracial and D.J. Wesolak from 30 minutes to the left of Columbia. Paired with high 3-star Jalen Marshall, this group will be the depth pieces for the next two years as they round into form and rotate in with the older guys listed above. You can absolutely bet one of them will see significant playing time but, even though it’s taking two years at this point, the athletic upgrade in the defensive line is quickly becoming one of the more exciting stories to track during the Drinkwitz regime.

2022 Forecasting

  • Prediction: Barring injury, starters/backups against Louisiana Tech will be: McGuire-D. Robinson-Jernigan-Jeffcoat/Walker, Jr.-Mathews-Gracial-Ford
  • Bold Prediction: Gracial, Montgomery, and Ford earn over 200 snaps on the year
  • HOT TAKE: Tyrone Hopper - now with his PhD - begins to make doctor jokes after every play. Sacks the quarterback? “THE DOCTOR IS IN”. Recovers a fumble? “TAKE TWO AND CALL ME IN THE MORNING”. Swats away a pass? “TAKE OFF YOUR PANTS, WE’LL BE WITH YOU IN A MINUTE”.