At the start of last week the Missouri Tigers defensive line got together and discussed what needed to change.
Mizzou had the worst run defense in FBS, leading their position coach to be replaced midseason, and the group was eager to find a way to improve.
“We knew what we put on film was nowhere near our best,” defensive lineman Isaiah McGuire said. “We knew that this is bigger than us, you know, we want to contribute to the team and we want to represent not only Mizzou but the name on our back.”
One of the key things that stood out was a lack of energy, McGuire said. On Tuesday, with the team depth chart newly scrapped, the defensive line came into practice with what the junior described as a “competition mindset.” They made an effort to feed off one another and congratulate each other for good plays. And they also bonded off the field with a chicken wing dinner at a local restaurant (all of the position groups had team dinners).
“I felt like we got together as a defense this week and just understand what we need to get better at,” said Trajan Jeffcoat, a 2020 first team All-SEC defensive lineman for the Tigers. “Once we did that, you start to see a change on the field and the energy start getting contagious, everybody started being happy, and all of that just correlated into the way we played.”
In a 48-35 victory over North Texas, the defense allowed less than 200 yards on the ground for the first time since Week 1 against Central Michigan. Mizzou also had 10 tackles for loss, three sacks and three turnovers. Still, the Tigers also gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter and left a lot to be desired on that side of the ball.
At his press conference ahead of this Saturday’s matchup against No. 21 Texas A&M at Faurot Field, head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said he was “extremely proud” of the way the defensive line played under new position coach Al Davis, while also acknowledging the fair share of mistakes.
“Was it perfect? No. Believe me, I got plenty of DMs and all that, mentions that it’s not perfect. I get it, OK. I get it,” Drinkwitz said. “We all want it to be perfect. We’ll get there. We’ll get there. But what was good was the effort we played with, was the mentality we had. We were ready to go when the ball was kicked. So that’s the start, and we gotta build on that.”
The head coach also noted that the group was more connected, just a week after citing disconnect in the trenches as one of the key factors that led to his decision replace Jethro Franklin with then-analyst Davis as defensive line coach.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said he thought his unit did a better job penetrating on the line of scrimmage and getting out on blocks. He said the defense needs to go beyond being in the correct gaps and focus on making aggressive tackles to create plays for loss, which it did at times against North Texas. But he also thought the defense lacked fundamentals and technique late in the game, which the Tigers have continued to fine tune this week.
And as they prepare to face a tough SEC opponent — remember how the Aggies knocked off top-ranked Alabama last Saturday? — the Mizzou coaching staff once again elected not to have an official depth chart.
“We’re trying to create competition, we’re trying not to get complacent and let guys get comfortable in their roles,” Wilks said. “Guys got to compete every day to earn their spot, and that’s what you saw last week, that’s what you’re seeing this week.”