During the 2012 season, the Missouri Tigers displayed an improved defense. There were two primary ingredients that went into Missouri's improved defensive play for 2012, including stalwart defensive line play and the best pair of starting corners of the Gary Pinkel era at Mizzou.
Coming off of an all-conference sophomore season, junior corner Edwin Gaines was even better in 2012, although he didn't get tested nearly as much. Still, E.J. Gaines was able to register 74 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2 QBHs, 11 PBUs, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. In addition, Gaines took a handoff on a punt return and ran for 44 yards. Gaines is a tough, physical football player, with outstanding ball skills. In 2012, he did a great job of coming up in run support. And, he excelled in man-to-man coverage. Opponents didn't throw his way very much, choosing instead to seek out other match-ups. The coaching staff loves E.J. Gaines, who is an exemplary practice player, and a tough, hard-nosed, physical play maker on game day.
Senior corner Kip Edwards remained relatively healthy, and enjoyed his best season at Missouri. He recorded 46 total tackles, including 6 TFLs, and he showed a real nose for the football, with 5 PBUs, 2 INTs, and 3 fumble recoveries. Edwards was very good in coverage, and he did a terrific job in run support, a sure tackler who would also deliver a big hit. The popular Edwards also asserted himself in a leadership role among his teammates.
Thus far, Edwards and Gaines have been the best pair of corners of the Gary Pinkel era at Missouri. And, both guys made every start, and stayed relatively healthy for most of the season. Edwards moves on, probably to the NFL, while it appears that Gaines will likely return for his senior season.
Because Gaines and Edwards were so good, teams went after Missouri's third corner, junior Randy Ponder. He played in all 12 games, starting 2 games in which Missouri began the game with an extra defensive back. Ponder finished the season with 45 total tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 1 QBH, 2 PBUs, and 1 INT. He wasn't a weak link, per se, but he wasn't as good in man-to-man coverage as Edwards and Gaines, so teams began to reposition their receivers in an attempt to exploit Ponder in one-on-one match-ups with a top receiver. Succeeding opponents watched the success that others had with this tactic, and the favorable match-ups that they were able to create in the passing game. Ponder won some of those one-on-one battles, but he was also victimized. As the season progressed, opponents relied more and more on creating those match-up advantages, as Ponder was clearly targeted in the passing game.
It was the decision of the Missouri coaching staff that Ponder was their third best corner, and part of their best personnel package in passing situations. Overall, Ponder played pretty well, although there was an obvious drop-off in execution from Edwards and Gaines to Ponder. Ponder became targeted, and he was exploited. This is where I find fault with the Missouri coaches. This became a pattern that was working for opponents, yet the Missouri staff failed to make the necessary maneuvers to adequately counter this strategy, and the result was that they allowed Ponder to be unnecessarily victimized.
Missouri's starting safeties, senior Kenronte Walker and sophomore Braylon Webb, each made all 12 starts for the Tigers this season. I don't think either of them played up to my expectations, but they both had pretty good seasons. Walker was productive, as he recorded 71 tackles, including 2.5 TFLs, and he had 1 PBU, 1 INT, 1 forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries. You could always count on Walker to come up in run support and deliver the big hit. Early in the season, he was a sure tackler, but as the season progressed, he developed poor tackling habits, often leaving his feet, and failing to wrap up. He displayed good ball skills for a safety, but he was inconsistent in coverage, where he won some and lost some.
On the season, Webb, who routinely came out of the game more often than did Walker, racked up 64 tackles, including 1.5 TFLs. He also recovered a fumble. In games, I didn't often see the disruptiveness that I've seen from Webb in practice. He wasn't quite as fast, or as physical. He didn't wreck as many offensive plays, or make as many plays on the football as he usually does in practice. At times, he was just a fraction of a step slower, and he was coming in just a little more cautiously. Webb is a terrific talent, and he has a high ceiling, with a bright future. But going forward, Missouri needs for Webb to be the disruptor I've seen in practice, and to play at full throttle all the time.
One reason that Webb didn't play as much as Walker is that he regularly split reps with junior Matt White. Going into the 2012 season, White was the most-experienced of Missouri's safeties, and for the season, White registered 23 tackles, including 0.5 TFL, and he was credited with 2 PBUs. For the third straight year, White played in every game. He's a terrific young man who grades out well in practice. He knows what he's supposed to do, and he is usually in the vicinity, but he just doesn't seem to make many plays in games. This was his best season, and he did make a few plays. I remember one of his pass-break-ups was a nice play along the sidelines where he arrived on time with his head in front and knocked the ball loose and the receiver out of bounds. That was a very good play, but those types of plays from Matt White have been all too infrequent. This year, I think he played more than his performance warranted. He's a decent tackler, but he's not physical. And although he's not bad in coverage, he just simply doesn't make many plays.
On the other hand, I'd like to have seen more of RSF Ian Simon, who saw action in 10 games for the Tigers, mostly on special teams, and who finished the season with 14 tackles, including 1 TFL, 1 QBH, and one of the season's biggest pass-break-ups in the Tigers 4 OT win at Tennessee. Simon is a good cover guy who will also come up and hit somebody. Going forward, Simon figures to be in the hunt for a starting job next season.
Missouri's number four corner, sophomore Xavier Smith, saw action in 9 games, mostly on special teams, and made 4 tackles on the season. Smith has improved each season, and has gained valuable game experience.
RSF corner Earnest Payton played in 3 games, and made 2 tackles. Payton is another one to watch.
Another RSF safety who saw action in 3 games is Cortland Browning. He made 1 tackle. Just having gotten onto the field is invaluable in the development of this talented, young defender.