Since joining the SEC, Missouri has developed a reputation for defense, primarily through the development of defensive line talent under position coach Craig Kuligowski. New head coach Barry Odom has brought in his own set of coaches, including defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and defensive line coach Jackie Shipp, and with them come significant change. Missouri fans who've come to celebrate a tradition of "D-Line-Zou" will still see an emphasis on punishing defense, but it will look a little different as Odom installs his system.
Odom inherited the personnel of former defensive coordinator Dave Steckel's effective, relatively vanilla 4-3 defense and molded it into a more aggressive unit with multiple fronts. The Tigers lose little from that 2015 group, most notably Kentrell Brothers, who led the nation in tackles. Returning is nearly the entire defensive line, including Charles Harris and Terry Beckner. The biggest question for many is, what further changes will be implemented and what does that hold for the future?
The defensive line has become part of Missouri's identity, will that be remain a focus under Odom and new DL coach Jackie Shipp - or will pressure come from other places?
What will those blitzes look like?
Ian Boyd: Odom’s M.O. at Memphis was all about the 3-4 defense and creating pressure by regularly bringing linebackers on the blitz from different angles but neither the 2015 Missouri Tigers nor the 2016 staff have followed that pattern.
Shipp comes from Arizona State, where they ran a hybrid defense where pressure was manufactured by bringing people from every conceivable position group to overwhelm protections with sheer numbers on man-blitzes. New D-coordinator DeMontie Cross has a background of running a similar style of defense and the most impressive aspect of his resume is helping Gary Patterson transform safeties into hard-nosed linebackers at TCU.
None of that necessarily suggests a move away from the Kuligowski tradition of relying on the four down linemen to provide pass-rush but perhaps just adding some man-blitzes to the equation to help out from time to time.
Recruiting is obviously a consideration for coaches making a schematic change. Under the previous regime there was a focus on finding under-sized athletes to rush the passer and bulking up smaller lineman to play on the interior.
Will Missouri be a looking for a different type of (DE/DT/LB?) athlete now?
IB: So far it would appear not. Like you noted, Missouri has tended to aim for speed in their defensive recruiting at every position and that’s exactly what Cross and Shipp did at their previous stops.
A lot has been made about having athletes who can play in space - having "space backers", hybrid safety/LBs or DE/LBs, strong safeties, free safeties and $afeties. Missouri has a several guys who may fit into these roles. Charles Harris may end up playing a lot of DE/LB while Donavin Newsom may play a safety/linebacker role.
It's easy to get lost in the terminology. Can you maybe clarify it a bit with what exactly you expect Missouri to use?
IB: My best guess is that Missouri will utilize personnel similar to what they’ve used in the past. At Arizona State Shipp would use your normal nose tackle, defensive tackle, strongside end, and then a DE/LB hybrid in the weakside defensive end role. They had fun terminology like "Tiger end" for the defensive tackle position that would move between a 3-technique and 3-4 DE alignment or the "Devil backer" for the DE/LB hybrid.
I assume if Shipp makes any major changes to the Missouri defensive line it’ll just be emphasizing a "strong" vs a "weak" defensive end with the latter as the featured edge-rusher whereas Kuligowski just played them right and left and was looking for a pass-rushing at both spots.
Donavin Newsom will play what I call a "space-backer" position, which just means that he’s playing out in space over slot receivers but he’s playing mostly underneath zone coverage, doesn’t have to carry receivers on deep routes, and is usually responsible for containing the edge. Those are all linebacker assignments but they’re all handled in space, hence the term. Missouri will probably just call him the Sam linebacker.
One of the most difficult things to observe and dissect is the play of the defensive secondary - typically they're off the TV screen and fans only notice them when they cause a turnover or make a huge mistake. Many fans tend to complain about them playing too far off the line of scrimmage - although that's not something I imagine is unique to Mizzou.
What do you think we can expect for Missouri from the defensive secondary?
IB: This is where things might get fairly interesting, imo. The 2016 Tigers defense was similar to previous iterations in that they were basically a Tampa-2 defense that relied on "bend don’t break" zone coverages executed by athletes on the back end supported up front by aggressive play from the four down linemen. They actually reminded me some of the North Dakota State Bison defense.
Given the make-up of the staff, I would expect Missouri to put a similar emphasis on speed in the defensive backfield (linebackers, corners, and safeties) but began to utilize it with pattern-matching quarters coverages rather than the Tampa-2 and quarters zone drops of the past.
The differences for fans might be hard to notice but the biggest difference would probably be seen on TV in the linebackers sticking tighter on short routes rather than dropping for depth.
I suppose Missouri has played a little more off coverage than some schools but they were playing a lot of zone and they tended to take deep drops with their linebackers. That strategy, done properly, has the effect of either encouraging short, quick throws of the sort that drive fans of the offense crazy or else forcing the QB to hit tight windows downfield under pressure. I think the results speak for the wisdom in that approach for the Tigers.
One of the few things Missouri's defense struggled with was allowing third down conversions. Maybe some of that had to do with Missouri's woeful offense sure, but according to David Morrison, "Third- and fourth-down conversions, actually, have been the only area in which Missouri has consistently underperformed when it comes to its opponents' norms. The Tigers are giving up a 13-percent better rate against FBS opponents than their opponents' other opponents."
Is there any defensive scheme reason you can see for this? Since it's the biggest weakness - how can they look to improve it?
IB: It didn’t really seem like the 2015 Missouri defense had any truly glaring weaknesses but that does seem to have been the most serious. I didn’t track every 3rd down on film from Missouri last year but my sense would be that perhaps they didn’t get as much pressure from the DEs as they have in the past, or perhaps there was a fatigue factor like you suggested.
Another possibility is that the "bend don’t break" nature of the schemes was prone to occasionally giving up an underneath pass at or near the markers and offenses were able to convert them.
A big thanks to Ian Boyd who writes about college football for SBNation, about the Texas Longhorns at InsideTexas. You can find his collected work here and follow him on twitter here: Follow @Ian_A_Boyd