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Sophomores are the key to a rebound for the Mizzou defense

At every position on the two-deep, sophs are ready to make an impact. Mizzou’s a pass rusher away from a defensive rebound.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Missouri
Kobie Whiteside is one of many sophomores who could make a difference for Mizzou this fall.
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Keeping score during the spring game is a pointless exercise no matter what, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well get weird with it. Barry Odom has gone with a simple “points scored by the offense vs. points scored by the defense” approach that ... doesn’t exactly capture the imagination. It led us to long for the good old days of Gary Pinkel’s inscrutable system.

No matter what the scoreboard said, however (and at halftime, the scoreboard reset to 0-0), through the simple fact that Mizzou’s offense averaged just 4.6 yards per play overall, it’s safe to call the defense the winner of the scrimmage. It wasn’t all good news, though.

The Mizzou pass rush was non-existent.

A lot of Mizzou’s more successful offensive plays came on routes that took a while to open up. That’s fine as long as your offensive line is protecting your QB, and Mizzou’s line certainly did that ... with a little help from the refs, at least. While the touch rule was in effect for the QBs, it appeared officials ignored a couple of defender touches to see what the QB could do on a given play. In one instance, Micah Wilson scrambled for a first down after a touch; in another, Drew Lock ended up throwing the ball away.

But this was, of course, a Mizzou vs. Mizzou scrimmage. If the O-line did its job well in pass protection, that means the D-line did its job pretty poorly, yeah?

I was curious about what Mizzou would show up front from a personnel perspective. We heard a lot about moving between three and four down linemen and potentially posting some of Mizzou’s defensive tackles at end. There was a little bit of that, but even with three down linemen, we were most likely to see ends Chris Turner and Nate Anderson on the edges, at least on passing downs.

Turner and Anderson were given most of the snaps with the first string in the first half; they combined for 2.5 tackles and a TFL — Turner’s touch-rule tackle of Wilson on a late-Q3 keeper. (It was a pretty hard “touch.”) But while the pocket collapsed on Lock and Wilson a hair in the early going, the pocket was mostly pristine.

One on hand, it was nice to see what Mizzou was trying to do from a routes perspective. On the other, I’d have sure liked to cross “does Mizzou have what it needs at DE?” off the offseason worry list.

Tre Williams proved himself over the second half of last season, and since he wasn’t on the field on Saturday, we didn’t see the full arsenal. Plus, Mizzou could get a boost from three incoming true freshmen (Daniel Parker Jr., Jatorian Hansford, Trajan Jeffcoat) this summer.

But Mizzou had quite a bit of offensive success on third-and-medium to long in the first half: a nine-yard pass from Lock to Okwuegunam, a 13-yarder from Lock to Floyd on third-and-10, a defensive holding penalty on a fourth-and-5 pass from Lock to Floyd, a touchdown on third-and-6 from Lock to Johnson, a nine-yarder from Jack Lowary to Brendan Scales on third-and-8.

I liked the play-calling, to be sure — Derek Dooley kept the play-calling simple but created some easy eight- to 10-yard completions — but it would have been great to see the QBs under a bit more stress.

Purdue v Missouri
Chris Turner is your likely starting end opposite Tre Williams this year.
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

On the bright side, Mizzou’s run front was ... quite existent.

Mizzou is bereft of experience at defensive end but is as loaded as it has ever been at tackle. That was evident, as Mizzou’s run game had to look to the perimeter to find much success.

Larrry Rountree III had five rushes for four yards, and while Damarea Crockett looked strong and physical, he still only had 24 yards in six carries, 10 of which came one carry that saw a bounce to the outside and a nice stiff-arm. Spring game hall-of-famer Dawson Downing had a couple of nice runs but ended up with only 49 yards in 13 carries as well. That’s a combined 77 yards in 24 carries (3.2 per carry) for three guys we know can run the football pretty well. All “vanilla offense” disclaimers aside, that tells us who was winning the battle in the run-blocking trenches.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Mizzou’s defensive tackles, besides the depth: the youth. Jordan Elliott, Kobie Whiteside, Akial Byers, and Antar Thompson are all sophomores. (Besides the run support, Thompson and Terry Beckner Jr. each batted down passes as well.) Caleb Sampson is a redshirt freshman, too. They were all active.

Beckner, Walter Palmore (who had the game’s only sack), and Rashad Brandon are seniors, but when you combine these sophomores with the two who could end up starting at end (Williams and Turner), you’ve got massive potential up front for years to come. And if a freshman end ends up carving out a nice niche, things skew even younger.

Some other random thoughts:

Aubrey Miller was everywhere.

The sophomore from Memphis led the team with 8.0 tackles — six solos and four assists — plus a tackle for loss. Three of his tackles came on first-down gains of three or fewer yards, and he stuffed Downing for a loss midway through the third quarter. Terez Hall raved about him after the game as well.

Miller and Jamal Brooks are basically in the same boat heading into the fall: with seniors Hall and Brandon Lee and junior Cale Garrett all returning, they likely won’t force their way onto the first string, but they’re leading candidates to start in 2019. We’ve heard great things about them both since the day they showed up on campus, and we’ve had no reason to let our optimism slip since then.

DeMarkus Acy is still DeMarkus Acy: physical, aggressive ... and penalty-prone.

On the 14-play drive that resulted in Lock’s touchdown pass to Johnathon Johnson, Acy committed a pass interference penalty early, then committed a holding penalty on fourth-and-5 later on.

Of course, he also saved a touchdown on Crockett’s excellent stiff-arm run on that same drive, he broke up two passes (though one was negated by a procedural penalty), and he picked off one of Lindsey Scott Jr.’s deep-ball attempts.

Acy and sophomore Adam Sparks are a pretty exciting cornerback duo; they both bring pretty aggressive identities to the table. They’ll both return in 2019, too, so that’s one more reason to believe that the best days for Ryan Walters’ defense are in the future. But Acy’s clearly going to continue to cross the line between legal and illegal contact this year. As long as you’ve only got one guy like that, you’re fine.

Seriously, this sophomore class is exciting.

  • Williams and Turner at defensive end.
  • Elliott, Whiteside, Byers, and Thompson at defensive tackle.
  • Miller and Brooks at linebacker.
  • Sparks and Christian Holmes at cornerback.
  • Josh Bledsoe (who started at strong safety on Saturday), Tyree Gillespie, and Jordan Ulmer at safety/nickel.

The run front was as good as advertised, and the secondary got soundly beaten basically twice in 52 passes (neither against the first-string defense). The pass rush remains a concern, but there’s a lot to like about the Mizzou defense, and there’s a lot to like about this batch of sophomore defenders.