Last season’s Missouri Tigers are not likely to be remembered fondly. Going into the season, fans were optimistic and had good reason to be. Connor Bazelak was returning after a solid freshman campaign, Tyler Badie had shown plenty of flashes and now saw himself in a starting role, and the defense was being led by Steve Wilks, a guy who had plenty of experience in the NFL.
Unfortunately, the product on the defensive side of the ball wasn’t pretty and left plenty to be desired. The 2021 team can best be characterized by an atrocious run defense. In the second game of the season, Missouri traveled to Kentucky, where they gave up 340 yards on the ground. SEMO and Boston College both eclipsed 250 over the next two weeks, and they reached a new low after Tennessee stomped a mudhole into the Tiger front seven with 458 yards. 458 is often a number you’ll see in the “total yardage” category, so to see it in just one facet of an offense is alarming. Over the first six games of the 2021 season, the Tigers allowed an average of 283 YPG on the ground, ranking as the nation’s highest to that point.
However, despite the abysmal level of play provided by the front seven, the Missouri secondary presented themselves as one of the lone bright spots. When the season concluded, Missouri had finished fifth in the SEC with 206 passing yards allowed per game. And while the secondary play was far from perfect, the run defense made it look supreme to its competition.
So, this begs the question... Can the secondary continue to be the unit that carries the defense? Here are a few reasons why you can be optimistic.
1. The new “STAR” position
Blake Baker is Drinkwitz’s third defensive coordinator in three years, and it’s safe to say that this hire has got to pan out. As previously stated, last year’s defense was, for the most part, abysmal, so it has to improve. Baker, who coached LB at LSU last season, will step back into a coordinator role. which he previously held at both Louisiana Tech and Miami. Baker will run a 4-2-5 base D just like Wilks, but there is a slight tweak in personnel. Wilks’ version placed the fifth defensive back as a nickel corner, while Baker deposits his as a hybrid linebacker who spends plenty of the time in the box.
After analyzing this personnel change, it’s safe to admit that this makes sense. Missouri’s run defense was exposed last season and the only way to improve that is with development and extra bodies. With guys like Martez Manuel and Daylan Carnell, this should be a great benefit to the defense.
In addition to this, Manuel played a similar role in the dreaded COVID year and played extraordinarily. In 2020, he amassed 64 total tackles, 7 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. It is important to mention, that Manuel did this in his first year starting in ten games, and was arguably the most electric player on the defense behind Nick Bolton. Daylan Carnell made some superb plays in the spring game and even had two interceptions. I think both Manuel and Carnell will see the field.
2. Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw duo
It’s safe to say that Abrams-Draine was the most productive defensive back on the team in 2021. In 2020, Abrams-Draine was a wide receiver who didn’t get many opportunities, apart from returning duties. In the offseason leading up to the 2021 season, Drinkwitz announced that he would be making the transition to cornerback. The move paid dividends, as Abrams-Draine led the team with a team-high 7 PBU’s, accounting for 3 interceptions. The sophomore made his mark right away as a nickel corner and made his case to move to the outside this season.
This means that it will most likely be Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw serving as CB1 and CB2, respectively. Rakestraw suffered a torn ACL in a mid-week practice leading up to the North Texas matchup. This as after he seemed to be having some discomfort during the Tennessee game, so the injury was proof of that sentiment. In 2020, Rakestraw started as a true freshman and posted solid numbers. He accounted for 24 total tackles, as well as 6 PBUs. Rakestraw was arguably the best corner on the team and typically locked down his side of the field.
Despite suffering such a mentally taxing injury, Rakestraw has gone on record numerous times, speaking about his mother’s support helped his recovery and how he feels mentally ready now. If Rakestraw can return to form this season, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Missouri can have a pair of great corners to lock up their respective sides of the field.
3. Depth at the safety position
Thanks to the transfer portal and a slew of returning players, the Tigers have some crucial pieces at the safety position this season. Joseph Charleston comes from powerhouse Clemson after not seeing the field much in his third year in the program. Charleston was a 4-star coming out of high school and is expected to make an immediate impact.
Returner Jaylon Carlies had a breakout year last season and was all over the field, finishing with 67 total tackles and a team-high 4 interceptions. Jalani Williams returns, and despite a lack of production, Williams offers good size and hits hard. If injuries occur, Manuel or Carnell can always shift over. Going into week one, expect Charleston and Carlies to command from the backend.
With countless transfer portal additions and plenty of returning starters, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that the defense should improve. Baker has stated that the best coverage is a pass rush, so it’ll be interesting to see just how much that can improve. If the front seven can generate some pass rush and do better against the run, expect this secondary to potentially be one of the conference’s best.