Better or worse? Previewing Mizzou’s defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the 4th in a series previewing every SEC East defense. Coming Friday: South Carolina.
Back when Mizzou joined the SEC, the defense was one of the best in the country, but the offense couldn’t put up points. Now, it’s the opposite — the offense has been elite, but the defense has struggled to make stops.
The Tigers struggled mightily on defense at the start of the past 2 seasons, eventually turning things around in time to make late-season runs. This year, it’ll be important for the Tigers to get off to better starts on defense if they want to improve upon last year’s 8-5 record.
However, they have some key losses to overcome, as the defensive line, linebacker unit and secondary all had contributors move to the NFL or graduate. If coach Barry Odom and DC Ryan Walters have trouble getting the new players up to speed, it could be another rough start for the defense.
So, will the unit as a whole be better or worse in 2019 than the group that allowed 25.5 points per game in 2018? We broke down four categories and then made an overall decision about how the Tigers will fare on that side of the ball this fall:
Pressuring the QB: Better
The Tigers lose Terry Beckner Jr. from their defensive line, but there are some interesting pieces returning. The line figures to be anchored by former Texas Longhorn Jordan Elliott, who showed flashes of brilliance during limited playing time at defensive tackle last season.
Other than that, not much is different. If Chris Turner, Akial Byers, Trajan Jeffcoat, Kobie Whiteside and others improve from what they did last year, the unit should be marginally better at getting after quarterbacks.
The Tigers only had 27 sacks in 2018. That ranked No. 8 in the SEC, but for a school that produces defensive line talent like Mizzou does, the unit needs to do more.
The Tigers rely heavily on their defensive linemen to create pressure in Barry Odom’s 4-3 defense, so that group will need to have a big year. Almost everybody in the rotation has experience, though, so it’ll be interesting to watch.
Run defense: Worse
Cale Garrett is a tackling machine and is one of the best inside linebackers in the SEC (I had him ranked No. 2 overall in my recent top 10 list). However, the linebacking corps is rebuilding around him.
Gone are Terez Hall and Brandon Lee, 2 of the team’s 4 leading tacklers last season. In their places are Nick Bolton and Gerald Nathan Jr. (according to the Tigers’ spring depth chart), who totaled 22 tackles (all Bolton’s) in 2018. That inexperience will hurt the Tigers when it comes to stopping the run.
In the secondary, Cam Hilton is gone. He had 31 tackles last year. These losses are all things the Tigers can overcome, but it might take a few weeks. The new players need time to get up to speed, and that might lead to some big rushing numbers against Mizzou early in 2019.
It’s going to come down to Elliott and the line taking over more run-stuffing responsibilities. The Tigers finished 4th in the SEC by allowing only 126.5 yards per game on the ground in 2018. We’ll see if they can match that in 2019, but I think they’ll struggle a bit.
Passing defense: Better
The Tigers return most of their key contributors in the secondary, especially at the cornerback position, where Adam Sparks, Christian Holmes and DeMarkus Acy will handle the bulk of the work. At safety, they lost Cam Hilton, but Ronnell Perkins is back and 4-star 2019 signee Jalani Williams should be ready to play this fall.
Tyree Gillespie, who is slated to play the Bandit position, was the team’s 3rd-leading tackler last season and looks like he could play an even bigger role in 2019. After giving up an SEC-worst 262 yards per game through the air in 2018, this unit, more than any other, will decide the defense’s fate.
With so much experience returning, it’s usually a good thing. However, when that experience didn’t exactly fare well, it’ll also be important for the guys mentioned above to show improvement.
Since finishing 3rd in the SEC in pass defense in 2015, the Tigers have finished 12th, 14th and 14th the past 3 seasons. That needs to change. This year’s secondary has the experience to take a step forward, but if it doesn’t, it’ll be another adventurous year for the pass defense.
I’ll say the unit will be better, though, because it can’t get much worse based on past results.
Special teams: Worse
The Tigers are losing punter Corey Fatony, who was a great specialist for 4 years. Every single season, he got better, and now the Tigers are stuck trying to find someone to replace him. During spring practices, kicker Tucker McCann was listed as the first-string punter, too.
Will he keep the job through the summer? Or, will someone else (like Josh Dodge) emerge and handle the punting duties. That’ll be a big question to watch this summer.
On the kick and punt coverage teams, improvement is very necessary. The Tigers gave up 2 punt-return touchdowns last season, which was the most in the SEC. They also allowed 47.1 total kickoff return yards per game, which ranked No. 9 in the conference. Mizzou produced 57 touchbacks, which tied for 3rd-most in the league, but its touchback rate (60%) ranked No. 7.
This is a unit in flux, so I expect it to take some time to improve. The loss of Fatony really hurts the special teams.
The Mizzou defense could end up being better in 2019, but it won’t be a drastic difference. I do think they have areas they’ll be better in (like pass defense), but overall, it’s not like they’re going to jump from a middle-of-the-road SEC defense to an elite unit.
Losing Beckner and Hall will hurt, but there is plenty of experience and the Tigers should be better when the 2019 season finally starts in a matter of weeks. Mizzou finished 10th in the SEC by giving up 388.5 yards per game in 2018. I expect them to finish around there again, maybe 8th or 9th if all goes well.
As I discussed above, I think the run defense and special teams will take a step back, while the pass defense and pass rush improves slightly. Those sort of cancel each other out. So, my deciding factor in picking “better” for the defense overall is actually the offense. I anticipate the Tigers will control the ball more with their running game this fall and have fewer big plays than they did under Drew Lock, so if their time of possession improves on offense, that will end up helping the defense greatly.