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Déjà vu on defense: Missouri’s ‘23 unit could live up to the standard of ‘13 and ‘14

In recent memory, there are two defenses that stand out in Mizzou lore. Does the ‘23 unit have the potential to resemble that of ‘13 and ‘14?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 25 Arkansas at Missouri

Oh, to look back at the glory days.

2013 and 2014 were enjoyable years for the University of Missouri, as it saw its football team stun the nation by winning back-to-back SEC East titles in just its second and third seasons of being a member of the conference.

That feat, of course, was made possible by two of the greatest defensive units Mizzou has ever seen. A lengthy list of Tiger legends played for at least one of those defenses, and the team was loaded from the defensive line to the secondary across both campaigns. From late, low-scoring victories over ranked Ole Miss and TAMU teams in 2013 to the defense’s fourth quarter stops in the 2014 win over No. 13 South Carolina, those units made major impacts on the outcomes of some of the biggest games in Missouri football history.

Some statistics may do the two units more justice. The 2013 team allowed 23.4 points per game, good for 34th in the nation. The 2014 unit just managed to top them, allowing only 21.1 points per game, landing them at 19th in the country.

Both units suffocated opposing team’s rushing attacks, with each of them allowing less than 155 yards per game. In terms of turnovers, the ‘13 defense specialized in picking the ball out of the air, racking up 20 interceptions on the season. In ‘14, the script flipped, as the Tigers forced a whopping 32 fumbles and recovered 13 of them.

I wanted to appropriately introduce the defenses of those two seasons before I dove into the point of this piece. After watching Blake Baker’s unit last season and seeing many of the top playmakers from a season ago return for 2023, virtually every Missouri fan understands the “why” behind the hype this defense is receiving this offseason.

The high expectations for this unit got me thinking about how they stack up with some of the greatest Missouri defenses Columbia has ever seen. Therefore, I went position-by-position to break down which unit can claim supremacy and how some of the current players measure up to the stars of the past.

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Defensive/Nose Tackles

2013 Depth Chart: Matt Hoch (JR), Harold Brantley (RS-FR), Lucas Vincent (JR), Josh Augusta (FR)

2014 Depth Chart: Matt Hoch (SR), Harold Brantley (RS-SOPH), Lucas Vincent (SR), Josh Augusta (SOPH)

2023 Depth Chart: Kristian Williams (RS-SR), Realus George Jr. (SR), Jayden Jernigan (RS-SR), Marquis Gracial (RS-FR)

It is hard to find a more active defensive tackle room than Missouri had in 2013 and 2014. Hoch, Brantley and Vincent complemented the elite edge rushers of the time perfectly, as they ate up plenty of space but were also able to make plays in run-defense. And even Augusta, while he did not contribute much in ‘13, recorded 22 tackles and 3.5 TFLs during the ‘14 season.

In their defense (pun not intended), the defensive tackle room was productive in its own right in 2022, and it stacks up well with the players from the previously discussed units. In terms of pure talent, the ‘23 unit may even exceed them, as the top three members of the group each have some form of professional aspirations at this point. The main topic of discussion this offseason has been how the loss of Darius Robinson, whom the coaching staff is looking to play more primarily at end this season, will affect this group.

The returners have not put together two full seasons of Hoch and Brantley’s level of play, and the loss of Robinson to the DE room will sting. Thus, I must give the benefit of the doubt to the 2014 unit.

Advantage: 2014 Defensive Tackles

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Defensive Ends

2013 Depth Chart: Michael Sam (SR), Kony Ealy (JR), Shane Ray (SOPH), Markus Golden (JR)

2014 Depth Chart: Shane Ray (JR), Markus Golden (SR), Charles Harris (RS-FR), Marcus Loud (RS-FR)

2023 Depth Chart: Darius Robinson (SR), Johnny Walker Jr. (RS-JR), Joe Moore (JR), Josh Landry (SR)

Here’s where the 2023 defense has some major catching up to do.

The defensive end spot was already an unproven position for the Tigers with Isaiah McGuire heading to the NFL, but adding in the offseason departure of Arden Walker hurt the depth chart even more. Robinson is a wild card as he makes the shift from tackle to end, but he figures to be productive given what the coaching staff has seen thus far in the spring and his combination of size and speed. Also, the guy is just a born leader and winner, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll make a significant impact in one way or another.

Austin Firestone and Moore step in from the portal to fill some voids, and Walker Jr. and Landry have great upside, but there is very little proven talent in the room right now.

In 2013 and 2014, there was nothing but proven talent. Sam, Ealy, Golden and Ray combined for 55 TFLs and 30 sacks in ‘13, which are just absurd numbers any way you look at them. Then, the veterans handed the reigns to the youngsters in ‘14, and Golden and Ray combined for 42 TFLs and 22.5 sacks on their own. They also can be credited with helping in the development of their own prodigy, Mr. Charles Harris.

Advantage: 2013 Defensive Ends

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2013 Depth Chart: Kentrell Brothers (SOPH), Andrew Wilson (SR), Donovan Bonner (SR)

2014 Depth Chart: Kentrell Brothers (JR), Michael Scherer (SOPH), Donavin Newsom (SOPH)

2023 Depth Chart: Ty’Ron Hopper (RS-SR), Chad Bailey (RS-SR), Triston Newson (SR), Dameon Wilson (RS-SOPH)

Things get a bit closer at the second level of the defense.

Brothers certainly deserves recognition as one of the greatest linebackers that has ever graced Faurot Field, and Wilson and Scherer each racked up a whopping 114 total tackles in ‘13 and ‘14 respectively. These guys may not have been as flashy or as athletic as Hopper, but the units they led were gritty and set the tone for some of the nation’s best defenses.

Of course, one could also delve into how Mizzou now employs a two-linebacker formation under Baker while Dave Steckel put three on the field in 2013 and 2014, changing the argument in some ways (i.e. individual production, playing time, style of play).

In the end, this is one of the closer picks, as the talent of Hopper and the experience of Bailey does give the ‘23 unit a fair argument. But, they can not remotely match the production of Brothers, Wilson and Scherer, and while Hopper is a force of nature, I’m still going to side with Brothers if I’m drafting a college team.

Advantage: 2014 Linebackers

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2013 Depth Chart: E.J. Gaines (SR), Randy Ponder (SR), John Gibson (FR)

2014 Depth Chart: Kenya Dennis (JR), Aarion Penton (SOPH), John Gibson (SOPH)

2023 Depth Chart: Kris Abrams-Draine (SR), Ennis Rakestraw (RS-JR), Dresden Norwood (RS-SOPH)

Here’s where the 2023 unit shines.

After both of them flirted with the NFL Draft, Abrams-Draine and Rakestraw announced that they would return to form one of the nation’s most intimidating cornerback duos this season. The pair combined for 46 pass breakups in 2022 and caused plenty of problems for some of the SEC’s top quarterbacks (i.e. Will Levis, Spencer Rattler, KJ Jefferson). With fingers crossed that they each stay healthy, Abrams-Draine and Rakestraw have bright futures at the next level and should be selected on day one or two of the NFL Draft next year. The duo is already appearing on some preseason all-conference lists.

On top of that, former Texas A&M transfer Dreyden Norwood began to come into his own late in the season and seems poised for a breakout campaign in ‘23. Most quarterbacks won’t be throwing towards the guys mentioned above, so Norwood will get plenty of looks coming his way.

Gaines led the Tigers with five interceptions in ‘13 and formed a solid tandem with Ponder, while Dennis and Penton were reliable as well. However, any way you slice it, the 2023 cornerback room takes the cake from a talent and production standpoint.

Advantage: 2023 Cornerbacks

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2013 Depth Chart: Donovan Bonner (SR), Braylon Webb (JR), Matt White (SR)

2014 Depth Chart: Braylon Webb (SR), Ian Simon (JR), Duron Singleton (SR)

2023 Depth Chart: Joseph Charleston (RS-SR), Jaylon Carlies (SR), Daylan Carnell (RS-SOPH)

In my eyes, this was the most evenly matched unit. The top three players for each of these groups were productive in their own right, and every one of them were versatile enough to make plays in pass or rush defense.

The ‘23 unit features three physical and athletic freaks who made a plethora of highlight-reel plays last season. Charleston brings experience and physicality, Carlies is an explosive hitter with great instincts and Carnell’s immense range on the field allows him to catch offensive players by surprise.

On the other hand, Webb was a star for the Tiger defense in both ‘13 and ‘14, recording seven interceptions and ranking top five on the team in tackles both years. Bonner, White, Simon and Singleton were reliable in support, as the veterans rarely made mistakes.

I could have left this one up to a coin toss (not sure how to do that with three options) and been completely fine with the result. In a life-or-death situation in which I’m forced to pick one of these units, I’ll take 2013.

Also, a disclaimer: Carnell generally plays at the STAR for the current defense, but I’m putting him in this category as it is most line with his role.

Advantage: 2013 Safeties

So, which defensive unit do you think is the best top to bottom? Leave your answer in the comments below.