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Can Missouri’s defense be better in 2023 than it was in 2022?

The Tigers boasted one of the best defenses in the SEC last year. Can it be even better in 2023?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 25 Arkansas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Missouri is coming off a season in which its defense gave the team every chance to beat the eventual National Champions (Georgia). That’s a heck of a feat. The defensive side of the ball was — at times — the only bright spot on the field.

(I’m thinking of you, Auburn game).

Isaiah McGuire played like an All-Conference edge rusher, Ty’Ron Hopper was creating havoc at every turn, Martez Manuel was his usual jack of all trades, the interior defensive line was filled with as much depth as any time I can remember, and the secondary came together in a way we haven’t seen in years.

All of it resulted in one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in all of college football. The Tigers went from the 113th ranked defense in the country in 2021 allowing more than 33 points per game to a top 60 unit nationally allowing just 25 points per game.

Can they be even better in 2023?

Mizzou Defense SEC Rankings in 2022:

Statistical Category: Total (SEC Ranking):
Statistical Category: Total (SEC Ranking):
Total Defense 340.8 yds/gm (4th)
Scoring Defense 25.2 pts/gm (8th)
Rushing Defense 125 yds/gm (3rd)
Passing Defense 215 yds/gm (7th)
Sacks 2.7/gm (T3rd)
Tackles for Loss 7.2/gm (1st)
Interceptions 0.85/gm (T3rd)
3rd Down Conversions 34.4% (6th)
Red Zone TD Conversions 65% (11th)
20+ Yard Plays Allowed 53 (7th)
PFF Run Defense Grade 84.7 (5th)
PFF Pass Rush Grade 83.0 (2nd)
PFF Tackling Grade 68.9 (8th)
PFF Coverage Grade 81.8 (6th)

It’s a tall task. Missouri is slated to face off against eight offenses that finished the 2022 season as a top-30 ranked offense by SP+, including four that finished in the top 15. The offense also might not do the defense many favors, as we saw last season. Mizzou’s inability to move the football against Kansas State, Auburn, Georgia, Florida and Kentucky left the defense to wilt, and eventually that pressure was simply too much to overcome.

So, yeah, it’s a lot to ask. But I don’t think it’s too tall a task for this group.

Key Losses to Mizzou’s Defense:

  • DE Isaiah McGuire - 515 snaps, 40 tackles, 14 TFL, 8.5 sacks
  • DE Trajan Jeffcoat - 414 snaps, 21 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack
  • DE DJ Coleman - 371 snaps, 37 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks
  • S Jalani Williams - 222 snaps, 11 tackles, 1 INT
  • S Martez Manuel - 505 snaps, 49 tackles, 10 TFL, 4 sacks

Key Additions to Mizzou’s Defense:

  • DE Joe Moore III (Arizona State) - 548 snaps, 24 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 sacks
  • DE Nyles Gaddy (Jackson State) - 474 snaps, 27 tackles, 11 TFL, 7 sacks
  • DE Austin Firestone (Northwestern) - 41 snaps, 3 tackles, 1 TFL
  • LB Triston Newson (JUCO) - 51 tackles, 9 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 INT
  • S Tre’Vez Johnson - 452 snaps, 26 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT
  • S Sidney Williams (Florida State) - 52 snaps, 12 tackles

The Tigers lost a lot of contributors, specifically coming off the edge. That was my single biggest concern with the group heading into the offseason, but Eli Drinkwitz’s staff did an admirable job to replace the likes of McGuire, Coleman and Jeffcoat with Moore, Gaddy and Firestone. It almost certainly will not be a one-for-one replacement, but the newcomers combined with Johnny Walker Jr. returning to the fold should be enough to form a passable unit.

Passable might be enough, considering the depth of talent accumulated at nearly every other position on the defensive roster.

Missouri returns 80 percent of its defensive production, which ranks as the ninth best in all of college football. When you break it down further, it becomes even more impressive. The Tigers bring back 76 percent of their 2022 tackle production, 69 percent of their tackles for loss, 55 percent of their sacks (see: McGuire, Isaiah) and 96 percent of their passes defended (!!!).

That’s a heck of a lot of proven production — especially on the back end where Mizzou returns nearly the entire secondary while adding power five transfers in Sidney Williams and Tre’Vez Johnson.

Losing a star in McGuire and significant contributors in Coleman and Manuel won’t be easy to replace, but the Tigers have done a good job in patching their holes. I believe this unit has a very good chance to match and exceed its production in 2022.

Defensive coordinator Blake Baker made quite the impression last season. I expect he’ll do more of the same in 2023.