Regular Season Review: Tiger Defense

Much was expected from the Missouri defense, heading into the 2011 season. The Tigers were coming off of a 2010 season in which their defense had performed very well, and the 2011 version included many returning starters.We review the regular season performance.

Much was expected from the Missouri defense, heading into the 2011 season.  The Tigers were coming off of a 2010 season in which their defense had performed very well, and the 2011 version included many returning starters.

Last week, heading into the Kansas game, Coach Pinkel talked about the opportunity that his team had in front of them to have a good season despite an injury-plagued year the likes of which Coach Pinkel had never seen.

For the second straight year, the linebacker corp was hit hard with injuries early, and a pair of freshmen, Kentrell Brothers and Brandon Durant, were lost for the season during fall camp.  Senior LB Will Ebner was also injured early, spent the season on the sideline, and ended up taking a redshirt.

Still, able bodies were not really a problem for the Missouri linebackers during 2011.  Sophomore Andrew Wilson quickly emerged as the starting MLB, and he concluded the regular season with a team-leading 89 total tackles, including 7.5 tackles-for-loss, which is tied for fourth on the team this season.  The MLB in this defense should be one of the most productive, but Wilson led the team in tackles despite routinely coming off of the field in passing situations.  Not only is Wilson very productive, but he attacks ball carriers at the line of scrimmage, is a sure tackler, and is a big hitter.  The sophomore is a bone-crunching run-stuffer, the best MLB that Coach Pinkel has had at Missouri.

Senior LB Luke Lambert enjoyed a relatively healthy season, and turned in the best season of his career.  It was Lambert who, early in the season, suggested that he and Wilson switch places.   Wilson moved inside, and Lambert played the season at the SLB position, where he led the team with 11.5 tackles-for-loss, and 3 fumble recoveries.  He was tied for second on the team, with 74 total tackles.  Knee injuries have robbed Lambert of some of the foot speed he had earlier in his Missouri career, and it showed at times, but he finished the season strong, and made a solid contribution to the Missouri defense. 

Pre-season expectations for junior WLB Zaviar Gooden were high, with some touting him as Missouri's best defensive player, and an all-conference candidate.  Gooden finished the season against Kansas with what Coach Pinkel described as his best game of the year, and ended up tied for second on the team with 74 total tackles.  His tipped-ball interception against Kansas was his first takeaway of the season, although he was also credited with a blocked kick.  He neither caused nor recovered a fumble all season, despite the fact that he never left the field.  This latter statistic tells Gooden's story in this disappointing season as much as any.  For all of his speed and athleticism, the super-talented Gooden just simply didn't deliver.   Maybe the numerous injuries that nagged him all season affected his play, but too often he waited for ball carriers to attack him, instead of vice-versa, and he may have led the team in missed tackles, as he fell into the habit of leaving his feet to try to bring down ball carriers.  Rarely do you see Gooden put his head across in front of a ball carrier, wrap him up, and drive him backwards, and it's even more rare to see him meet a ball carrier in the hole, at or behind the line of scrimmage.  I often described Gooden as playing the WLB position as if he were playing safety, appearing to try to keep everything in front of him.  Most of his tackles this season were made down the field, so it was really good to see Gooden come across the line of scrimmage and tackle Kansas' Tony Pierson for a loss.

Through the regular season, Missouri had allowed an average of 23.5 points/game, which is a 46% increase over 2010, when Missouri gave up just 16.1 points/game.   Playing in an offensively prolific league, and playing a schedule that will end up being ranked among the nation's toughest, may have accounted for some of those additional points allowed.  But anyway you cut it, the Missouri defense underachieved in 2011.

Junior DE Brad Madison toughed it out, playing through a season-long shoulder injury that obviously slowed his production, and decreased his effectiveness.  Preseason expectations were high for Madison, and his performance fell short of those expectations.  But, playing at less than 100% all season, Madison still managed to register 25 total tackles, including 8.5 TFLs, which is third on the team, and 4.5 sacks, which is second on the team.  Madison also forced a fumble, grabbed an interception, and recorded 3 QB hurries.

The Tigers received a late-season boost at DE, as sophomore Michael Sam really came on toward the end of the season, and he played the last couple of games in a co-starter role, splitting time with Madison.  Sam recorded 26 total tackles, including 2 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks.  He also batted down a pass, intercepted a pass, and was credited with 4 QB hurries.  Sam had shown glimpses of promise, but over the last month, he's really taken his overall play to another level.

Speaking of another level, on the opposite side of the defensive line, senior DE Jacquies Smith recovered from early season injuries to finish strong, and place himself in position for post-season honors, as well as a future playing on Sundays.  Despite missing two games early in the season, and playing at less than 100% in others, Smith recorded 34 total tackles, including 9 TFLs, which is second on the team, and a team-leading 5 sacks.  Smith also had 5 QB hurries, batted down 4 passes, and forced 4 fumbles.  Once he was healthy, Smith was utilized as roving pass rusher, moving around at the line of scrimmage, which proved to be very effective.

Red-shirt freshman Kony Ealy played increasingly throughout the season.  Ealy gained experience, while filling in for Madison and Smith, and even started one game.  Ealy wasn't as productive as Missouri fans would have liked to see, but he showed improvement throughout the season, while recording 11 total tackles, including 2.5 TFLs, and a sack.  Much like Sam had done before, Ealy showed glimpses, but Ealy has not even begun to reach his potential.

Sophomore Brayden Burnett also started one game, and played a lot, especially early in the season.  He registered 14 total tackles, including 4 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks.  Burnett forced a fumble, and had 1 QB hurry this season, as well.

Ealy and Burnett performed admirably when called upon, and provided the Tigers with quality depth, but Missouri's defensive end play suffered when Smith was out, and as a result of Madison's injury.  In 2011, defensive end was a position of strength for Missouri, but the Tigers' defensive ends weren't as dominant and disruptive, especially early in the season, as had been expected.

The defensive tackle position was another position of strength for Missouri this year, and they played much closer to expectations, and at times, especially later in the season, were a dominant force.

Senior Dominique Hamilton had by far his best season as a Tiger.  He's almost a certainty to garner Fist-Team All-Big 12 honors, and has positioned himself well for next spring's NFL Draft.  Hamilton was the most productive interior lineman in the conference, with his 55 total tackles, 7 TFLs, and 3 sacks.  Hamilton had 3 QB hurries, blocked a kick, batted down 3 passes, and recovered 2 fumbles.  Hamilton was at the center of Missouri's #46-ranked rush defense, and also provided a pretty consistent push up the middle.  He came up with some of the biggest plays of the season, including preserving wins against Texas A&M and Texas Tech, by batting down passes at the line of scrimmage.

Senior Terrell Resonno is another player who toughed it out through an injury-plagued season.  Resonno missed two games, and played at less than 100% in several others, but still managed to make a significant contribution in registering 19 total tackles, 3.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks.

The next month will give Resonno a chance to heal up a bit, as the Tigers prepare for their bowl game.  Resonno's another one who may play on Sundays.

One of the primary reasons that Missouri's defense improved so much toward the end of the season was the return to health of Jacquies Smith.  Another one was the continuing development of junior DT Sheldon Richardson, who really came on the second half of the season, and was elevated to a co-starter role.  At times, Richardson was dominant, as he made 2 starts, and recorded 35 total tackles, including 7.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks.  Richardson also has 2 QB hurries, 1 pass-break-up, and a forced fumble.  Richardson, who has been on campus for less than four months, is an exciting player who is just beginning to realize his immense potential.

A fourth DT also made a significant contribution, as RSF Lucas Vincent played impressively in limited duty, especially later in the season.  Vincent recorded 10 total tackles, 2 TFLs, 2 QB hurries, and a pass-break-up.  He's another young player who shows a lot of promise.

The Missouri secondary spent most of the 2011 season in transition, and only briefly reached their zenith in mid-season, against Texas A&M.  Injuries played a big part in the fluctuation of the level of play, but also some inexperience, and some changes in personnel.

The one stable rock in this saga was safety Kenji Jackson.  The senior captain rarely left the field, and played solidly at strong safety all season.  He ended up fourth on the team, with 71 total tackles, including 5.5 TFLs, and a sack.  He also recorded 4 pass-break-ups, and led the team with 3 interceptions.   Jackson was the anchor of this secondary, and played consistently well all season, despite the ineffective play, and the resultant revolving door status, of the free safety position beside him.

The story of the free safety position for Missouri in 2011 is one of disappointment, and struggle.  And, when Missouri finally found an answer to their problems at the position, in mid-season, in RSF Braylon Webb, an injury forced him to the sidelines for two games, and reduced his playing time in the season's finale against Kansas.  Webb started four games.  His play, and with it, that of the Missouri secondary, reached their zenith in his third start, against Texas A&M, against whom he recorded 7 total tackles.  Webb was injured early in the next game, against Baylor, and the Tigers' secondary once again stepped back into its previously ineffective play.  For the season Webb ended up with 35 total tackles, and a fumble recovery.   Webb should be fully recovered for the bowl game.  He's a promising young player, who is just beginning to demonstrate and realize his potential.

This story begins in the spring, when Tavon Bolden emerged with the starting free safety job over another sophomore, in Matt White.  Not long after, Bolden was suspended, and later dismissed from the team.  After a solid fall camp, White began the season as the starter, and immediately began to struggle.  Probably because he was the most experienced player available, and because he had performed well in practice, the staff continued with White as the starter through the first five games.  On the season, White finished with 44 total tackles, 1.5 TFLs, and 4 PBUs.  He played his best game of the season against Kansas, which lends hope for his future, and substance to the belief that the Missouri staff has placed in White.  Their belief in White is understandable, in that White is a high character young man, is very bright, very athletic, and just does everything that he's supposed to do off the field, and on the practice field.   It's a bit of a head-scratcher to see him struggle in games.

After Webb went down, back-up SS Kenronte Walker was pressed into duty at free safety, and the junior started the final three games.  Walker finished the season with 40 total tackles, including 1 TFL, 1 sack, and 1 fumble recovery.  He plays the run better than the pass, which is probably true of all of Missouri's safeties.

Early in the season, Missouri struggled at the CB position.  The season got underway with junior Kip Edwards on the sidelines.  He came back too early, at Arizona State, and was ineffective, then finally returned healthy against Oklahoma.  Once Edwards got back into playing shape, he had a good season, and gave the Tigers solid play on that side.  On the season, Edwards made 48 total tackles, forced 2 fumbles, had 1 PBU, and came up with an interception.

Edwards' healthy return to the line-up, and return to form, coincided somewhat with the continued development of  Missouri's best corner.  After a rough game at Arizona State, sophomore E.J. Gaines rebounded and gained experience.  He has since emerged as one of the top corners in the conference, and with his league-leading 16 PBUs, would have to be considered a strong candidate for First-Team All-Big 12 honors.   Gaines has developed into a top-notch, versatile corner, who not only covers very well, but is also a tremendous run forcer, and a sure tackler in the open field.  He is Coach Pinkel's best corner at Missouri, and his development throughout the 2011 season was a major component in the in-season improvement of Missouri's defense.  Gaines finished the season fifth on the team with 69 total tackles, including 3 TFLs.  He also came up with 2 interceptions, and forced a fumble.  His 16 PBUs is a single-season school record!  The exciting part about Gaines is that he can get better, maybe a lot better!

Senior corner Trey Hobson emerged from fall camp as the third corner, and with Edwards on the sideline, Hobson started the first three games.  He finished the season with 25 total tackles, 2 TFLs, and 3 PBUs.  Hobson was solid during Edwards' absence.

Somewhat inexplicably, the Tigers began the season with junior CB Robert Steeples as their extra starter in their five-defensive back personnel package, or dime package.  About mid-season, sophomore Randy Ponder replaced Steeples in that package, a move that significantly improved the play of the Missouri secondary.  On the season, Steeples registered 20 total tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 1 interception, and 1 PBU.

On the season, Ponder made 34 total tackles.  He had 1 interception, and 4 PBUs, and he forced a fumble.   Most importantly, Ponder made the plays. 

Ponder's insertion into the line-up, combined with the return to health and mid-season form of Edwards, and the emergence and continued development of Gaines, gave Missouri very solid play at the cornerback position.  By season's end, the corner back position had become a strength of the Missouri defense.  For the brief time that the Tigers had those three in the line-up, along with Jackson and Webb, Missouri's secondary was at its best all season, and they played at a level that would allow the Tigers to compete for a championship.

Junior Trey Barrow averaged 45 yards/punt, which ranked second in the Big 12, and tenth nationally.  He also handled the kick-off duties, and was pressed into service on FGs, as well.  His biggest play of the year may have come against Texas, when following his only blocked punt of the season, Barrow knocked the football out of the end zone for a safety.

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