Missouri’s defense isn’t shying away from talking about last season.
Through the team’s first four games, Missouri’s run defense ranked No. 129 out of 130 FBS teams, allowing 269.2 yards per game. Then, the bulk of the Tigers’ SEC schedule hit and that number got worse in home blowouts to Tennessee (62-24) and Texas A&M (35-14).
“We definitely started off slow last year. Everybody knows that,” Mizzou linebackers coach D.J. Smith said.
But something clicked for Missouri against the eventual national champions in Athens, Georgia. Despite the loss, the Tigers kept the Bulldogs scoreless for the first 14 minutes of game and the defense began to believe in each other.
“That probably goes back to better understanding, better practice habits, understanding that every play matters, consistency in calls, knowing our personnel,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said at a press conference Sunday. “I think there’s probably a lot of variables.”
The Tigers defense probably can’t be expected to be the most physical or talented in the SEC. But cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine said the problems last year were more mental than physical.
“After the first quarter of the Georgia game, we built that trust,” Abrams-Draine said. “We felt like if we can play with them, we can play with everybody. That trust just grew and grew and then we started playing a little better.”
Missouri didn’t suddenly become the league’s best defense after that game. They improved and now, with a veteran group, they’re looking to build off of it.
In the offseason, Drinkwitz hired Blake Baker to be his third defensive coordinator in as many years. Although Baker has his own ideas, it seems that his defense will have similarities to what Steve Wilks implemented.
“The first thing I do is talk about how this scheme is built,” Baker said. “We’re a one gap, we’re an attacking defense. It’s the offensive side that makes the play. The second that you try to do someone else’s job, that’s when bad things happen.”
Senior safety Martez Manuel missed last year’s bowl game because of an ankle injury. Since arriving on campus as a freshman, Manuel has always been a vocal leader. But this offseason, the captain wanted to let others lead.
Now, Smith says that there isn’t just one leader on the defense.
“This is probably the best defensive unit that I’ve been around since I’ve been coaching,’ Smith said. “Guys gel together really well.”
It won’t be clear if this is Missouri’s best defensive group under Drinkwitz until it takes the field Sept. 1 against Louisiana Tech. It does, however, seem like it might be his deepest at each position.
“I told (the defense) that we have a lot of experience this year, but we don’t have time for slow starts,” Manuel said. “It’s not acceptable.”
Projected starting defense
While Missouri lost multiyear starters in Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers at defensive tackle, the Tigers brought in Oklahoma State transfer Jayden Jernigan to likely compete for one of the two voids with Darius Robinson seemingly taking the other. Robinson recorded 24 tackles last season while Jernigan had 22 tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble. Realus George will also likely get significant playing time as well.
Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire, the team’s primary defensive end starters from 2021, both returned and are looking to have breakout years. After redshirting last season, Arden Walker could also factor into the mix.
Since Nick Bolton was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs, Missouri has been searching for another standout linebacker. Chad Bailey and Florida transfer Ty’Ron Hopper seem like the most obvious candidates, but Devin Nicholson has more than two seasons worth of starting experience and could also see playing time as well. A combination of all three seems likely throughout the season.
Missouri’s secondary is probably its deepest position. Abrams-Draine was the unit’s best player last year and he could start alongside Ennis Rakestraw Jr. at cornerback. Rakestraw started every game as a true freshman in 2020, but tore his ACL midway through last season. JC Carlies, Martez Manuel and Clemson transfer Joseph Charleston will likely headline the safety positions.