Coordinator Blake Baker led a defense that improved from one of the worst in FBS in 2021 into a top-20 unit by SP+. He was thanked for his efforts with a contract extension and a raise, and now he gets to lead his charges into year two with eight returning starters.
Because of how many impact players return, we can safely predict who will be starting at the two linebacker spots, the two defensive tackles, the two traditional safety spots, and both cornerbacks. But some rotation depth remain to be determined, as well as replacing program stalwarts Martez Manuel, Isaiah McGuire, and Trajan Jeffcoat. Let’s take a look at the key names to know that will be vying for playing time.
Ty’Ron Hopper was a stud last season for Missouri, providing an instant jolt of havoc after transferring in from Florida. Chad Bailey started eleven games alongside Hopper, only missing a pair of midseason contests due to injury; his strong play down the stretch and an impressive bowl game outing locks him into the second spot. But what about behind those two?
Redshirt sophomore Dameon Wilson started in Bailey’s stead in those two games, but was ineffective and phased out of the rotation after Bailey returned. Chuck Hicks is back for his sixth season of college football and third at Missouri; the oft-injured Wyoming transfer has only managed 12 snaps in two seasons but could finally figure into the rotation this season.
A name to keep an eye on is DJ Wesolak; the class of 2022 four-star recruit appeared in five games last season on special teams while redshirting. Wesolak had an eye-popping offer list (Alabama, LSU, USC, Clemson, etc) as a recruit and played defensive end in high school, but was moved to linebacker during the 2022 campaign. An impressive 2023 spring camp could allow him to break into the rotation this season to prepare him for a starting role in 2024.
Martez Manuel started at the STAR position for Blake Baker’s defense in 2022, a hybrid nickel/overhang safety role that is common in modern college football. The STAR is asked to do a little bit of everything: in 505 snaps last year, Manuel played in the box 237 times, as a slot coverage player 201 times, and on the edge 57 times.
There are a handful of candidates to replace Manuel, and chief among them is burgeoning star Daylan Carnell, who played in every game last season as a redshirt freshman. Carnell made a name for himself with the Tiger faithful with his ballhawk skills, intercepting three passes and recovering two fumbles. He is not the same caliber of pass-rusher as Manuel – he only recorded one pressure in 24 pass rushes, compared to 11 in 42 for Manuel – but he is a significant upgrade in coverage.
A pair of Sunshine State transfers could be in line for snaps at the STAR. Tre’Vez Johnson played exclusively as a slot cornerback for the Florida Gators, and could absorb some of the slot coverage responsibilities that went to Manuel last season.* Sidney Williams played a similar hybrid role at Florida State, but was used more often in the box.
* Of Missouri’s top three corners, Kris Abrams-Draine and Dreyden Norwood almost never play in the slot, and Ennis Rakestraw only ventures in there about 15% of the time. Johnson’s position will be “CB” on the roster, but his experience matches up more with replacing STAR slot responsibilities rather than taking away snaps from the top three proven corners.
Carnell should get the starting nod and majority of the snaps here, but expect the transfers to factor in as well, and spring ball could give us some indication of how their complementary skills might be deployed.
If there is any position that keeps Blake Baker up at night, it’s this one, with the top four players in the regular season all departing. Both starters are gone; Isaiah McGuire is an early entrant from the NFL draft and Trajan Jeffcoat ping-ponged off to Arkansas in the transfer portal. Primary backups Tyrone Hopper and DJ Coleman are out of eligibility, leaving only some unproven pieces and a pair of transfers.
Junior Johnny Walker Jr and sophomore Arden Walker are the primary in-house options to start this season after learning on the bench to begin their careers in Missouri. The Walker Brothers (not actually related, but c’mon, it’s an unbeatable nickname) both got a taste of major college football during the regular season, and then were thrown into the deep end of the pool, starting the Gasparilla Bowl against Wake Forest thanks to the aforementioned departures. Johnny is the favorite to start, with an extra year of experience and more proven playmaking in his opportunities.
Tiger faithful should also pay attention to Power Five transfers Joe Moore, who arrived from Arizona State and has three years of eligibility remaining, and Austin Firestone, who has four years remaining after a single redshirt year at Northwestern. Firestone is a longshot to start this year; the three-star recruit saw only 44 snaps in Evanston last year. Moore should be a plug-and-play starter: the former blue chipper from St. Louis started all 12 games for the Sun Devils in 2022.
For now, Johnny Walker Jr and Moore are in the early lead for starting nod. It will be interesting to see if Firestone or Arden Walker use spring practice to show they are ready to take a step forward and challenge for the role as well. If not, could players from other positions be used for depth? We already mentioned how DJ Wesolak moved from end to linebacker last fall; he was a terror rushing the quarterback in high school and would seem to be a natural fit.
The other candidate would be Jayden Jernigan, the former Oklahoma State transfer who is listed as a defensive tackle on the roster. At 279 pounds, Jernigan is the lightest defensive tackle on the team, and he played about a quarter of his snaps last season (81 out of 367) lined up over the offensive tackle or out wide. His versatility could add depth and help Baker get his best four defenders onto the field at the same time.
Next week: This same exercise, but on offense.