With the 2022 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 2023.
Two dudes played most of the snaps at linebacker last year and both return. What does that mean for a surprisingly deep position with very few playing opportunities ahead of it?
During the 2021 postmortem on Missouri’s linebackers, I said this:
When the spread offense revolution began in the early aughts and fully took over the sport in the early teens, it not only transformed the way the game is played but damn near changed the way players are used. Offensive linemen became more spaced out and needed to win one-on-ones more often; tight ends had to be pass catchers; skill position guys needed to be able to take a handoff and catch a pass; defensive linemen needed to pressure the quarterback; and linebackers needed to be able to play the pass effectively. The fullback essentially disappeared overnight and, with it, the run-stuffing linebacker specialist became a less sought-after skill. Linebackers do still need to hit the hole and bash into runners, of course, but the days of a Brock Christopher/Andrew Wilson/Michael Scherer enforcer that’s a total liability while covering passing lanes are all but gone. Linebackers that can stop the run, cover tight ends, and create quarterback pressures are the ones that continue to see the field, which is why a Sean Weatherspoon/Cale Garrett/Nick Bolton type of player are the ones that see the majority of the snaps.
And, lo, did we see a very modern linebacking corps in 2022! Blake Baker - like most modern DCs - almost exclusively deployed some variation of a 4-2-5 look, with the number “2” reflecting the number of linebackers he put on the field. And with Ty’Ron Hopper and Chad Bailey, he found two tackle machines who could also generate pressure and be a nuisance in the passing game.
You might as well change the position name from “linebacker” to “havoc maker”, as the modern game values smaller edge rushers in those positions, with enough quick twitch and speed to chase down ball carriers and get hands on passing lanes. Hopper and Bailey were the best on the team when it came to creating havoc...and no one else really came close. The good news? They’re back! The bad news? Who the hell is going to replace them in ‘24?
Alas, that a problem for our future selves. Let’s take a look at what these gentlemen did last year.
Devin Nicholson was Eli Drinkwitz’s first inside linebacker on the ‘20 football team, playing nearly every snap of the ten-game season. He played in every game of the ‘21 season as well but had his snaps siphoned off by an emerging Chad Bailey. Nicholson went from 556 snaps to 498 to a mere 118 in ‘22 and saw the writing on the wall. He hit the transfer portal and now will be playing for Kent State.
It’s all of them! Well, minus Devin Nicholson.
Frankly, I’m shocked that there’s only been one portal out from this group. And, truly, I think we see a few more after spring practices. The top two are so dang good and the rotation was so dang small and the roster is over budget by five guys that I can’t imagine Missouri carries ten linebackers into the ‘23 season. But I digress...
You know Ty’Ron Hopper and Chad Bailey. They took 81% of the total linebacking snaps for the year and represented 82.7% of the tackles, 98% of the TFLs, 85% of the run stuffs, and 100% of the sacks, interceptions, and forced fumbles from the linebacking corps. And they’re both back! It would be nice if some youth can push their way into playing time, especially given that the skill level of the top two meant very little time missed for injury. However, do try to enjoy this year of their production as it’s hard to see two linebackers play at such a high level for your favorite team.
Dameon Wilson was the only guy we really got to see an extended audition for, and the results were mixed. Wilson was pressed into service when Bailey missed two games for injury and was a decent tackler but didn’t have nearly the instincts or disruption of his predecessor. He was still a redshirt freshman at the time so hopefully that extended experience taught him some valuable lessons. Will Norris was the only other backup that managed to see the field (aside from Nicholson) and, even then, only managed 19 snaps on defense. His most infamous moment came when he tackled the Kentucky punter and gave the ball back to the Wildcats to seal the victory for the bad guys. Let’s hope he has a few more chances to redeem himself this year.
Xavier Simmons, Carmycah Glass, and D.J. Wesolak all took a redshirt year in ‘22 to preserve eligibility going forward. Chuck Hicks also didn’t see the field but that was due to an injury suffered in fall camp. Of these four, Hicks is the only one who for sure won’t be back next year. Wesolak, in particular, is an intriguing piece as he was a blue-chip edge rusher in high school that got the “LB” put next to his name on the roster. We’ll see how he’s used going forward and if he stays in a crowded linebacking room.
The MACCC defensive player of the year, Triston Newson enters a crowded position group with a ton of accolades to show for his brief JUCO career. Newson tore it up at Northeast Mississippi Community College, finishing last year with 107 tackles, 9 TFLs, 2 sacks, 4 passes defensed, 3 interceptions, and 4 forced fumbles. Needless to say, if he can do that in the SEC, he’ll have some more hardware to add to the mantle. As it is, he has three years left to play two years and could theoretically step into the chair of the departing Hopper or Bailey to help ease the transition from experienced vets to new freshmen. I’m excited to see what he can do at this level and hope he can push for playing time.
2022 stats: 87 tackles, 20 TFLs, 5.5 sacks, 3 PDs, 1 FF
Brayshawn Littlejohn is fun. Turn on his tape and you see a guy who is aggressive, fast, and hits way freaking hard. He has a lot of runway to grow and adapt in the SEC and certainly won’t be seen this year. But this is the under the radar guy that I have my eyes fixed on, and I can’t wait to see what he can do with a few years of seasoning.
- Prediction: Starters will be Hopper and Bailey; backups will be Wilson and Norris.
- Bold Prediction: For the fourth year in a row, Missouri’s Will linebacker leads the team in tackles for loss and run stuffs.
- HOT TAKE: Chad Bailey outperforms Ty’Ron Hopper to close the season and gets drafted before Hopper does. And by that, of course, I mean Bailey gets picked 1st overall and Hopper is picked 2nd.