Every college football team comes into the season with questions. Yes, even Alabama. Now, some teams have more answers than others. But everyone has questions.
For Mizzou, one of the biggest questions coming into the season was how the revamped secondary would come together. More specifically, how would defensive coordinator Steve Wilks and his staff overcome the losses of former 3-year starting safety Tyree Gillespie and 3-year starting nickel cornerback Joshuah Bledsoe?
Losing production from the secondary can be scary. As the great Bill Connelly has shared, the best way to project defenses year-to-year is returning production in the secondary.
From Bill Connelly of ESPN.com:
Continuity in the back of the defense has far more of an effect on your stats than continuity up front. Returning production in the secondary ends up accounting for about 59% of your overall statistical change, a monstrous amount compared to linebackers (minus-33%) and defensive linemen (minus-8%). Apparently change up front is much easier to account for, which might surprise some.
Missouri didn’t seem to have obvious internal options. This wasn’t a “1A/1B” type of situation. Gillespie and Bledsoe played nearly every snap the last three years. They were productive. They helped the Tigers take away the middle of the field.
And now they’re gone.
Two unlikely candidates, both of whom are former wide receiver prospects, have stepped up in their absence. Kris Abrams-Draine and Jaylon Carlies were two of the biggest winners from Missouri’s week one win against Central Michigan.
Nobody was a bigger surprise in the opening week than Abrams-Draine. Not for me, at least. The former wide receiver made the transition to defensive back this offseason, and boy, he looked great in his debut at the position for the Tigers. He is, more or less, playing the position formerly filled by Bledsoe.
That spot is in the slot. And it requires a lot from a defensive back. If you’re not willing to help out in the running game, you can’t play in the slot. If you’re not able to protect against a two-way go, you can’t play in the slot. And if you can’t carry a receiver up the field one-on-one, well, you can’t play in the slot.
This is such a great tackle from Kris Abrams-Draine. He has some impressive instincts in the nickel. A lot of the time these position changes can be seen as a "last resort" type of situation.— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) September 6, 2021
Abrams-Draine has the look of an impact player for #Mizzou in the slot. pic.twitter.com/rpinkELmxF
It’s only one week, so take it with a bit of a grain of salt... but Abrams-Draine proved capable doing all of the above against Central Michigan. Oh, and he did so in large part lined up across from Kalil Pimpleton, Central Michigan’s star receiver with 108 receptions for more than 1,150 yards in his previous 20 games for the Chippewas. That’s certainly not an easy task for someone new to the position.
Abrams-Draine asserted himself early and often. He kept contain and set the edge in the run game, carried up the field against Pimpleton and fought through some tough situations to knock the ball out of the would-be receiver’s hands at the last possible second.
We’ll see what this leads to. It’s tricky predicting cornerback performance week-to-week, but Abrams-Draine showed more than enough in his first week at the position to be considered the established starter going into week two. He’s a player worth being excited about.
If Abrams-Draine was my biggest surprise, Carlies wasn’t far behind. He saw limited time at safety last season, and unfortunately had to serve a suspension in the first half of the Central Michigan game because of a targeting penalty called against him in the season-finale last year against Mississippi State (as an aside, what a stupid rule. Can we please not carry these over to the following season? Please?).
New #Mizzou starting safety Jaylon Carlies missed the first half of the game against Central Michigan because of his targeting penalty from the final game of the 2020 season, but he made an immediate impact in the second half. pic.twitter.com/WtalDeNigP— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) September 6, 2021
Carlies entered the game at the start of the second half and immediately made his presence felt. He racked up a couple tackles and an interception on CMU’s first eight plays of the second half. His ability on the back end looks, aesthetically speaking, a lot like Gillespie. He’s a long and rangy free safety with the ability to come down and lay a hit when needed in the run game.
There are definitely some Tyree Gillespie similarities for Carlies. Pretty impressive range, but what really stands out is his willingness to get involved in the run game. This had to be the most memorable hit of the game against Central Michigan. #Mizzou pic.twitter.com/dyMcBMr4PF— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) September 6, 2021
If you’re looking for a potential pitfall for Carlies, it’s fair to point out there were a couple plays in which he took a less than ideal angle either to the ball carrier or to defend an open receiver. That very well could (and probably will) improve with experience.
After getting torched through the air in the first half to the tune of 14-for-23 for 185 yards (8 yards per attempt), one touchdown and one interception, the Tigers settled down against the pass in the second half. Central Michigan’s offense was 10-for-24 for 116 yards (4.8 yards per attempt) with one touchdown and another interception in the second half.
In other words, the per-pass production was nearly cut in half when the Tigers had their top secondary unit available to their disposal.
Mizzou’s secondary was a fair concern coming into the year. It’s going to take more than one half of quality football to quell those concerns. But this could be a better-than-expected unit if Abrams-Draine and Carlies become quality starters on the back end.