Entering the 2011 season, Missouri's one experienced starting cornerback was injured, and the other starting corner was a relatively inexperienced player.
Heading into the spring of 2012, both starters are back, and they both appear to be healthy. After battling hamstring issues for the first half of 2011, senior Kip Edwards finished the season with 55 tackles, 3 pass break-ups, 2 forced fumbles, and an interception. Edwards is set on having his best season as a senior.
On the other side of the field, Missouri returns a First-Team All-Conference player in junior E.J. Gaines. Gaines had a tremendous sophomore season, in which he made 69 tackles, including 3 tackles-for-loss, and had a school-record 16 pass break-ups, along with forcing a fumble, and coming up with 2 interceptions. Can Gaines get better?
Once junior Randy Ponder took over as the number three corner, and the extra defensive back in Missouri's dime package, the Tigers were better in the secondary. Of course, that approximately coincided with Edwards' return to health, and with a change at one of the safety spots, as well. But, Ponder was terrific! And, he immediately demonstrated playmaking ability. He closed out the 2011 season with 37 tackles, 4 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble, and 1 interception. Ponder will line up with the second unit, and he'll see time with the starters.
With three quality experienced players set to return, the Tigers are in pretty good shape at corner. The goal of spring ball will be for those three players to stay healthy, and get better, and for some of the back-ups to develop into starter-quality players.
Heading into spring ball, senior Robert Steeples will be listed with the second-team defense, but he will immediately be challenged by a trio of talented youngsters.
Smith has yet to overtake Steeples on the depth chart. That will be his goal this spring. I'll be watching him, as well as Johnson and Payton, both of whom are very talented, and either of whom could surge ahead this spring and challenge the top rungs of the depth chart. Johnson appeared to be ahead of Payton last fall, but Payton has the kind of size that the staff would like to have on the field at corner next fall.
In 2011, Missouri had an experienced strong safety that could be counted on, in Kenji Jackson. Alongside of Jackson, the free safety position underwent transition throughout the season. Now, with Jackson gone to graduation, and with Alex Grinch in place as the new position coach, competition at the safety position is about as wide open as any on the team.
At the beginning of spring ball, I expect to see senior Kenronte Walker and sophomore Braylon Webb at the top of the depth chart. They each had 4 starts in 2011, and they each performed fairly well. Webb moved into the starting line-up in mid-season, but an injury forced him to the sideline, and that's when Walker moved up.
I think that Webb is a star in the making, and I expect him to be very much in the mix for a starting job at one of the two safety spots. He has a good combination of size and speed, he covers pretty well, and he's a big hitter.
Walker's another big hitter.
Junior Matt White won the starting free safety position heading into the 2011 season, but he was replaced in the starting line-up after 5 games. He'll be in the mix.
Junior Tavon Bolden saw considerable playing time in 2010, but prior to the 2011 season, he was dismissed from the team for unspecified reasons that are believed to have been related to academics. In December, Bolden was back practicing with the team with what appeared to me to be a whole new attitude. Coach Pinkel indicated that Bolden had worked his way back onto the team by performing in the classroom on his own.
I'm not sure where Bolden will be listed on the depth chart at the beginning of the spring, but I expect this big hitter to move up during the spring, and to be in the mix near the top of the depth chart by the end of spring.
Red-shirt freshman Ian Simon has impressed from the time of his arrival on campus. I think he'll insert his name into the mix for serious consideration this spring. He's pretty good in coverage, and despite not being the biggest guy, he's not shy when it comes to contact.