Mizzou Report: Defense and Special Teams After the Early Signing Period

Since the Tigers beat Arkansas to bowl eligibility in Week 13, the team has gone through a number of roster changes.

With the early signing period over and the transfer portal closed for now, it’s time to dole out a position-by-position report for Missouri to see if the Tigers (on paper) can improve their roster on defense and special squads. .

Defense Line: The defensive targets were probably hit hardest with Trajan Jeffcoat going to Arkansas and Isaiah McGuire and DJ Colman declare for the NFL Draft. That is a lot of experience and production leaving the group.

The Tigers added Northwest transfer defensive end Austin Firestone and Arizona State defensive end Joe Moore. They also added three star recruits Jordon Harris, Jahkai Lang, Serigne Tounkara and Sam Williams.

Firestone had three tackles and a tackle for loss in a true freshman season. He will probably be at least a rotation player.

Moore had 24 tackles last season, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble to recover.

He was originally committed to Washington in December before things fell through. He attended high school at Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis and was a four-star contender in the class of 2020 who had a number of Power 5 offers, including one from the Tigers. Moore will likely be in the rotation, but he may have a chance to compete with Arden Walker and Johnny Walker for one of the starting spots.

Originally a tight end, Harris is likely to make the switch to defensive end due to his size of 6-7 and 230 pounds. He’s a former basketball player and he’s going to be a big project and will almost certainly get a red shirt, but his size offers great potential.

Tounkara is a good running defender who is very physical and explosive. He’s someone who could only make his way into effort and engine rotation if he progresses steadily enough this offseason.

Lang had 66 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks on defense in his senior year with Troy Buchanan (Mo.). He’s already enrolled, so he’ll be at spring football in March, which puts him a little bit ahead of Harris and Tounkara.

Missouri has retained the services of defensive tackles Realus George, Jayden Jernigan, Josh Landry, Darius Robinson and Kristian Williams. The interior of the line is therefore still intact. Sam Williams, who played defensive end with Callaway (Ga.), will likely make the switch to the inside. He probably won’t get too many reps since the Missouri coaching staff ranks high on Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial, but he certainly has the size Mizzou was looking for in the interior.

Overall, this group may not have someone who can pull off the production of McGuire or Coleman, but the defense line as a unit has enough depth to still maintain a formidable front line. CLASS A-

Linebackers: The Tigers lost Devin Nicholson to the gantry, but he played no significant role on the roster, so losing him, from an on-field standpoint, has minimal impact.

Near the end of last season, Chad Bailey said he would return in 2023, but Ty’Ron Hopper’s whereabouts were unknown. He could have easily declared himself in the draft, but luckily for the Tigers, Hopper decided to roll back the following season. So Missouri has both starting linebackers on the roster next year to go along with the other six returning starters.

In this new era of the transfer portal, players come and go much more and much faster. In principle, each player has a one-year contract and coaches must re-recruit players to their own teams annually. So even though Hopper was with the Tigers in 2022, he is Missouri’s best “addition” at the position.

Since there was a decent chance Hopper had been NFL-tied, the Tigers went to the gantry and signed Triston Newson, a JUCO first-team All-American who just made 107 tackles for Northeast Mississippi CC (Miss.). Had Hopper left, Newson would probably have been first in line to replace him in the starting lineup. That won’t happen now, but he will probably be able to spell Hopper if he’s not on the field for any reason.

Missouri also added three-star linebacker Brayshawn Littlejohn, who was a Class 5A All-State player last season with Gaffney (SC) as an outside linebacker. There are a number of players who are likely to see the field before Littlejohn in 2023, but he is a solid addition to the position. Littlejohn has also already signed up for classes, so he will participate in spring football.

Hopper’s re-admission alone is huge, but it’s always a good thing to get another valuable rotation player and bring in another player who is given time to develop. CLASS A

Subordinate: The Tigers lost Martez Manuel by the draft and Jalani Williams by the transfer portal. Manuel is the bigger deal considering he’s been captain for the past two years, but of the three Tigers who declared for the draft, he’s easily the most expendable as Daylan Carnell proved in 2022 that he’s ready to take the starting STAR position over to take. Williams was a role player, so like Nicholson, this is not a loss that weakens position on the field.

The team retained starting safeties Jaylon Carlies and Joseph Charleston, and it also retained starting cornerbacks Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw.

Carlies has tied his name to the NFL since the end of the 2021 season, and Abrams-Draine was told he had a third-round pick for this year’s draft if he declared, but he wasn’t happy about that. Both of them coming back, like Hopper, are good re-adds. Especially Abrams-Draine because he and Rakestraw are one of the best cornerback tandems in the country.

Missouri added former Florida safety Tre’Vez Johnson and former Florida State safety Sidney Williams from the portal after it signed four-star safety Marvin Burks and three-star defensive backs Nicholas DeLoach, Shamar McNeil and Phillip Roche.

Johnson is coming off the best season of his career playing in 12 games and starting nine with the STAR. He recorded 26 tackles, two tackles for loss and one interception.

Williams, who happens to be Abrams-Draine’s cousin, comes on after 12 tackles in 11 games.

Burks is the team’s top-rated recruit and is the No. 198 player in the Rivals 250. He is a willing and physical tackler as well as a playmaker and could play that defensive coordinator in any safe place Blake Baker needs it to play. Burks has also registered and will participate in spring football.

DeLoach is listed as a wide receiver, but he played wide receiver and defensive back with Cahokia (Ill.) and he will just stay with the defense when he comes to Columbia. He racked up 94 tackles and four interceptions, with two returned for touchdowns. He was also a wrestler and that coupled with his number of tackles suggests he isn’t afraid of contact which is a common theme for this secondary.

McNeil is quite tall for a cornerback at 6-3, but he uses his height to his advantage. He’s good at high-pointing jump balls and he mirrored receivers very well last season at American Heritage (Fla.), where he recorded 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception and 15 pass deflections.

Roche was told by Baker that he could be drafted into any position in the secondary, but his tape suggests he is an ideal candidate for the STAR position in the future. He’s a physical and willing tackler, but he’s also a great blitzer.

This position group is top to bottom the most talented on the team and when you factor in all the starters coming back, the transfers coming in and the players likely to contribute from the bench (Tyler Hibbler, Tyler Jones, Isaac Thompson and Ja’ Marion Wayne) there is almost no way for any of the recent high school signings to play. In this case, it’s a good thing because by the time they’re ready to play, they’ve seasoned for a year or two. CLASS A

Special Teams: The biggest departure from the special teams was punter Jack Stonehouse, who moved to Syracuse. Stonehouse was okay, but struggled with consistency at times. So, Missouri replaced him with Towson punter Riley Williams, who was a second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection and fourth in the FCS in punting with 44.7 yards per punt on 46 punts. Williams let 16 punts go 50 or more yards, 13 punts landed within the opposing team’s 20-yard line, and only three touchbacks.

The Tigers also lost kick returner Elijah Young, who moved to Western Kentucky, but with Nathaniel Peat and Abrams-Draine, they still have capable returners. The same can be said with Luther Burden III on punt returns, though someone like three-star wide receiver Daniel Blood could fill that role if needed.

Harrison Mevis had the worst season of his career in 2022 as he missed a career-high six field goals and scored 22 0f 28 (78%) field goals. Nevertheless, at his best (5 out of 5 against Georgia in week five, including three from 49+ yards), he is still one of the best kickers in the country and Mizzou is happy to have him back in 2023.

The Tigers also signed Blake Craig, a two-star All-State kicker from Liberty North (Mo.). Craig made 17 of 24 field goal attempts, including three 50-yard field goals (55, 52, and 50). He was also on point 50 of 51 on tries.

Craig will be signed up for the Tigers midway through the year and compete in spring football and may have the opportunity to be the kickoff specialist with Sean Koetting‘s departure.

The Tigers upgraded to punt after retaining one of the best kickers in school history, then topped it off by signing a promising kicker who can fill the role within a year. CLASS A

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