Better or worse? Previewing Missouri's defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 4th in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: South Carolina.
First-year head coach Eliah Drinkwitz has Missouri fans watering at the mouth with his recruiting prowess this offseason, ranking 21st in the country for the Class of 2021. For reference, former head coach Barry Odom had the Tigers rank 51st, 37th and 43rd, respectively, the past 3 classes.
While recruiting is crucial and the bloodline of a program, none of that Top 25 class will step on the field in 2020, assuming football will be played. Thus begs the question: How will Drinkwitz’s squad full of Odom’s players perform following a somewhat disappointing 2019 campaign?
After examining the offense, now it’s time to flip to the other side of the ball.
Let’s take a look at Missouri’s projected defense for 2020 and determine whether we’ll see an improvement on that side of the ball.
Pressuring the QB: Better
This should be fun.
Four seniors are projected to start on the line in 2020, including 3 returning starters: Kobie Whiteside, Akial Byers and Chris Turner.
The lone non-starter from last year in the group is Tre Williams, who played plenty and recorded the 3rd-most tackles among defensive linemen with 24. The 6-5, 260-pound speed edge rusher from Columbia should be able to get to quarterback with his combination of size and quickness.
Whiteside, on the other hand, is just 6-1 but weighs in at 310 pounds. Even with his size, he still found a way to get in the pocket, leading the Tigers with 7.5 sacks in 2019. Whiteside proved just how much of a force he could be in a breakout junior season and provides Missouri with the rare ability to get to the quarterback from the defensive tackle position.
Byers and Turner can’t match Whiteside or Williams’ numbers, but both have a year of starting under their belts and know the grind of a full SEC slate. They should continue to improve physically and mentally and have a high impact on Mizzou’s defensive success.
Missouri’s defensive line might not be the most explosive or touted in the SEC, but it very well could be the most experienced. Their maturity alone will help overcome an obstacle-filled offseason.
Run defense: Slightly Worse
Cale Garrett was on an All-American pace in September and looked to further his case with 2 interceptions against Troy on Oct. 5 — Missouri’s 5th game of the year.
However, earlier that game in the 1st quarter, Garrett didn’t realize that he tore his left pectoral tendon during a tackle, effectively ending his season and career. He left a hole in Missouri’s defense, both as a leader and its leading tackler.
A somewhat-unproven sophomore, Nick Bolton, looked to fill that hole. And fill it did he ever.
He became the Tigers’ leading tackler, racking up 100 tackles — 70 of them solo. It seemed like he was always around the ball, leading a unit that ranked 5th in the SEC in rush defense.
While Bolton should progress even more into one of the better linebackers in the SEC this year, two significant losses might hinder Missouri’s rush defense. Garrett and defensive tackle Jordan Elliott took their talents to the NFL and leave massive shoes to fill.
While Bolton filled in for Garret in admirable fashion, it will be interesting to see how Whiteside performs when offensive lines aren’t focusing heavily on his counterpart, Elliott, who was a 2019 Pro Football Focus First-Team All-American.
There certainly is an argument to be made that with Bolton and Whiteside’s breakout 2019 seasons, they’ll just further their progression and anchor a stout run defense. And with defensive coordinator Ryan Walters staying put amidst the offseason coaching changes, there’s reason to believe that will happen.
However, Garrett and Elliott’s leadership and talent will be extremely difficult to replace. Expect Missouri’s run defense to regress a little if anything, but still be among the SEC East’s best.
Pass defense: Better
Missouri very sneakily had one of the best pass defenses in the country in 2019, allowing just 179.3 passing yards per game — the 2nd-best mark in the SEC and 6th-best in the country.
Both starting corners are gone, however. DeMarkus Acy signed with the San Francisco 49ers and senior Christian Holmes transferred to Oklahoma State. However, that doesn’t mean Missouri’s secondary is done for.
Senior safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe return. They’ll make offenses think twice about throwing downfield. While Gillespie played more in the ‘bandit’ role as a physical, tertiary safety playing closer to the line of scrimmage, he should be a perfect complement to Bledsoe.
The two ranked 2nd and 3rd on the team with 50 and 49 tackles, respectively, proving their willingness to hit. It’s crucial to have third-level defenders who aren’t scared to body-up a large, physical running back that plenty of SEC teams boast.
If there’s a weakness, however, it’s intercepting the ball. Out of Missouri’s 8 picks last year, just 2 came via a defensive back, safety Ronnell Perkins, who graduated and is an NFL free agent. Things might be different on that front with new defensive backs coach David Gibbs coaching up the secondary, but only time will tell.
Still, expect just as dominant a showing from the secondary in 2020. Gillespie and Bledsoe’s talent at the safety positions should help a new pair of starting cornerbacks play more physically and confidently.
Since Gary Pinkel’s retirement in 2015, Missouri has struggled to get back to the defensive prowess that became a staple of the Tigers’ back-to-back SEC East championship teams in 2013 and 2014. But a 2019 season that placed the Tigers 6th nationally in passing yards allowed and 31st in rushing defense provided some hope that things are turning around.
With Missouri’s starting quarterback position still up in the air, it looks like the defense will have to take over in crucial matchups if the Tigers are to make a decent run in Drinkwitz’s first year. With the experience of this group, it’s not crazy to think Walters’ unit could be one of the best in the SEC East.