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Retooled MU defense prepares for second year under Blake Baker

The Tigers brought back a majority of their starting defenders and look primed to take the next step in becoming one of Missouri’s best defenses in history;

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri football is poised to make another leap forward on the defensive side of the ball under second-year defensive coordinator Blake Baker.

The Tigers bring back a plethora of starting defensive talent, including newly-converted defensive end Darius Robinson, cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine and linebackers Ty’Ron Hopper and Chad Bailey.

Several of these key returning pieces along with the defensive coaches, spoke Wednesday about what the defense has to offer this year and more.

Missouri gearing up for its best defensive season ever

Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker gave a glimpse into the thoughts among the Missouri defensive core, specifically an emphasis on replicating the efforts of great Tigers’ defenses of the past.

“I think they want to be one of the best defenses ever, and that’s the battle cry,” the second-year defensive coordinator said.

Missouri’s defense benefited from several factors this offseason—the return of key players, continuity among the staffing ranks and the addition of some impactful newcomers.

“We’re a little bit ahead compared to last year,” Baker said. “(We’re) really trying to challenge the older guys about being more detailed and more disciplined in some of the things that we can definitely get better at.”

Baker said that starts at the fundamental level, even with an experienced team. However, with the return of several key players and the same scheme, the team should be able to grow to new heights.

“That’s our main goal right now,” Bailey said. “That’s what we want to get done and we’re working towards it step by step every day, just taking it day by day.”

The Tigers are approaching that objective with a focus on fundamentals first, something Baker has preached as a foundational piece from which to build upon. Those fundamentals are the primary purposes of these spring practices, and it helps to bring back a full staff.

“Continuity is always great,” cornerbacks coach Al Pogue said. “Everybody understands understands the scheme, we all kind of know how to push each other and it’s like a brotherhood within the brotherhood. I think that’s really big.”

Even with the vast number of returning contributors, Missouri also welcomed in eight transfers and first-year players on the defensive side. Defensive back Marvin Burks, Jr., defensive lineman Joe Moore and linebacker Triston Newson are a few of these talents.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

“We’re an equal opportunity employer,” Baker said. “At the end of the day, we’re going to play guys produce, and there’s no sacred cows.”

The theme that no position is safe revolved around each position room, and each player will be asked to earn their position regardless of what their history may say. For Davis, three younger players are already starting to make their presence known as potential difference-makers.

“We got three young guys that I think have great, high ceilings, and they’re gonna provide some depth for us. I want to see all three of them step up—Ky Montgomery, Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial.”

The three of them each redshirted in their freshman campaigns and will look to make their impressions upon a defensive line room that is loaded, but still depleted following the departures of Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat.

Missouri’s roster is poised to build upon its success from last year, and the return of several of the team’s biggest contributors is a key reason why. That decision is something that has caught the eye of several coaches, who find it important to note that they are buying into the culture established in Columbia.

“I think it’s spoke to the to the program as a whole, the culture that (Coach Eliah Drinkwitz) has established here,” Pogue said. “Kids love being in the program, man. They trust us and more importantly, man, I think it speaks volumes to the staff because the kids believe.”

Robinson, Williams among early spring camp leaders

One trait that Missouri won’t lack this season appears to be leadership.

“I think from a leadership standpoint, it’s an unbelievable tool to have in our tool belt,” Baker said when asked about the returning leadership pieces. “I think all those guys that came back, I tell them it’s their money year man. This is the contract year.”

Although spring practice has only been in session for two days, a few of Missouri’s leading defensive talents are beginning to showcase their leadership.

“Jayden Jernigan and Kristian Williams also stepped up along with Darius Robinson to be guys that are leaders for the front,” defensive line and interior coach Al Davis said.

Williams, in particular, receiver high praise for his development from an incoming transfer last season into a true vocal leader that can be counted upon this coming season.

“(Williams) is a super serious kid,” Davis said. “He is a lead by example (type), but he’s also a guy who’s gonna be a vocal guy who can go talk to any pocket football team. He’s just one of those kids that everybody loves.”

The junior said he wasn’t always a vocal leader, rather one who led by example, but that approach has shifted since his transfer to the program.

“First of all, fantastic person, conducts himself the right way (and) has positive energy in this building every time,” defensive line and edge coach Kevin Peoples said about Williams. “He’s done a great job of becoming a leader for this team.”

Williams’ leadership is a welcome trait for the defensive linemen room, which has nine underclassmen with varying levels of experience, including three true freshmen. Luckily for those newcomers, a fellow defensive end, Robinson, is becoming one of the leading faces of the Tigers’ program too.

“We didn’t have to choose that kid (Darius Robinson) as a leader,” Davis said. “He showed, he took it upon himself to be vocal, be out front want to be the guy that’s pushing the team in the right direction, and the kids chose him as captain themselves.”

That mentality has spread to the secondary, where Jaylon “JC” Carlies, Joseph Charleston, Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw have now emerged as key quarterbacks among the defense.

“Joseph and JC really stood out to me,” Baker said. “JC constantly was on the sideline asking me what the call was, was the first guy off the bench tapping guys off and that’s a really good sign to see because I don’t think that’s him human nature wise.”

On a veteran-heavy team, leadership could be the determining factor in where the Tigers stand at the end of November.

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

Takeaways, Less Explosive Plays the early emphasis

Missouri impressed people around the country with its defensive prowess a season ago, specifically its ability to pass rush and eliminate the opposing running game. However, the Tigers also struggled to defend explosive plays and create turnovers, two key areas of emphasis right now.

“We did a really good job last year of finishing on the ball, knocking it down,” Pogue said. “Now, we got to do an even better job of finishing with the ball. We got to get some of those turnovers and takeaways.”

KAD and Rakestraw combined for the most pass deflections of any Southeastern Conference cornerback duo, a trait that speaks to the importance of having them back. At the same time though, turning some of those into extra possessions for the offense is still an area to grow.

“We got to eliminate explosives and we got to create more turnovers and some of that’s scheme, some of that’s missed opportunities and some of it’s just honestly being more aggressive at the ball,” Baker said.

Aggressiveness is also a key that Bailey hinted at when discussing the best ways to force more takeaways.

“We just got to play angry every day,” he said. “We got to strike at the ball, we got to put pressure on the quarterback (and) make it hard for him to complete throws.”

Williams echoed Bailey’s sentiments.

“It’s all 11 men on the field,” Williams said. “Every man got to do their job, as far as the D-line, we disrupt the run game, making them one-dimensional.”

Returning an individual decision, but group discussion

For most of January, it seemed like a new Missouri Tigers had announced their decision to return every other day.

Inside the locker room, those conversations became a common theme for those undergoing the process.

“Everybody made that decision on their own,” Bailey said. “We also talked about it as a group like those who were thinking about coming back. We just talked about it, seeing where everybody’s head was at.”

Robinson said the talks progressed to a group chat, where players would update each other on their decisions and process. The now-graduate defensive end was one of the last to commit to a decision, taking into account all aspects of his life.

“I just thought this was the best transition from my life right now,” Robinson said about his own decision. “I told Coach Drink, ‘I don’t think I was coming back,’ and then I just started thinking more about everything. I feel like I didn’t reach my potential on take. I feel I could get better.”

Hopper shared a similar feeling, and after receiving his draft grade, decided to return.

“I feel like I could do even better and do more and improve,” the second-year Missouri linebacker said.

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

Improvement is a common theme among the returning cast, but that growth will still require an emphasis on winning positional battles and competing against the newer Missouri Tigers.

“We play the best players here, so it’s one of those deals where we’re (depth is) a luxury for us,” Davis said.

Other Notes

  • “First of all, I always tell my guys man, ‘hey, never get beat by a lineman.’ And more importantly ‘know where you help is on the field.’” Pogue on what the cornerbacks can do to limit explosive plays
  • “I look I looked at that film and when I look at film like that is not from a schematics thing. My deal is really to see if a guy competes. ... I believe the most one of the most important attributes of playing defensive back is his competitive character.” Pogue on what he’s learned from watching film of previous Missouri defenses
  • “No, absolutely not. ... It was a pleasant surprise.” Baker on if he expected this much talent to return
  • I ain’t gonna say we comfortable. ... All of us are extremely humble and we hungry as all know what just to continue to build on what we already had last year.” Davis on the comfort level of the defense
  • “Extremely versatile kid. If you look at his body type, he’s long he’s lean, so inside he has the girth, but he also has been length to play on edge.” Davis on Darius Robinson’s ability to switch to defensive end
  • “Pass rush because there’s so much more grass ahead of you compared to defensive tackle,” Robinson said regarding what he’ll need improvement on.
  • “That’s huge man,” Bailey said on the return of most of the defensive line. “If you look at any great defense, any defense that won (a) national championship anything like that, they had an amazing D-line.”
  • “He can relate to the players and he makes the game simple and easier for any position on the field. So just to have a coach like that, you will definitely run through a brick wall for him,” Williams said on the impact of Baker.
  • “I watched (Tre’Vez Johnson) grow as a freshman, so now I mean he’s a very fast player. He’s a hitter, he can blitz (and) he can cover. I feel like he bring a lot to the to this team,” Hopper on his former Florida teammate Tre’Vez Johnson.
  • I think they’re gonna bring a lot of speed to the linebackers,” Bailey said on the additions of Hicks and Newson to the linebacker room.