In looking at the Missouri secondary heading into Spring Football, the Tigers returned one starting corner, in senior Edwin Gaines, and one starting safety, in junior Braylon Webb. So, the focus this spring was the competition for the other starting corner and starting safety jobs, as well as the emphasis on establishing depth in the secondary.
Coming out of the spring, the picture at corner has a little more clarity than the safety picture. To be sure, Gaines and Webb held onto their starting jobs, and they are pretty much unchallenged in that regard. Both made plays this spring, although toward the end of the spring, Gaines admitted that he hadn’t seen as much action as he would have liked. He suggested that the Missouri QBs had kind of stayed away from his side of the field.
But on the other side of the field this spring, there was quite a competition for that other starting corner position. Senior Randy Ponder began the spring, and entered the Spring Game, listed as the starting corner. He missed some time during the spring due to injury, and at the conclusion of the spring, I’m not sure that he held onto the starting job. If he did, it’s by the slimmest of margins. The more relevant question might be which of the young corners are presenting the stronger challenge to Ponder?
During the Spring Game, and in the scrimmages immediately prior to the conclusion of the spring, sophomore David Johnson and RSF John Gibson were both seeing time with the number one defense. But perhaps more importantly, the two young corners were getting a lot of time playing with the second-team defense, and going up against Missouri’s first-team offense. Often-times, that meant being locked up in man-to-man coverage with Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri’s top receiver. As E.J. Gaines told me this spring, going against Green-Beckham is a great way to get better. And although Gaines didn’t get as many opportunities to defend Green-Beckham as he would have liked, the young corners, Gibson and Johnson, were afforded those opportunities aplenty. And, they did get better. Heading into the Spring Game, Johnson and Gibson appeared to be listed as Missouri’s number three and number four corners, and they both appeared to be very close to moving up to that number two spot. In fact, based on what I saw of their play, I would already have Gibson and Johnson ahead of Ponder.
To be sure, all four of the corners who were closely involved in the competition for that number two spot got better this spring. Ponder got better, as did junior Xavier Smith. The competition was good for everyone at the position. I thought that the other three competitors separated themselves from Smith. I thought that he came out of the spring as Missouri’s number five corner. Ponder remains in the mix, but from my perspective, he’s the Tigers number four corner. At the conclusion of the spring, Ponder may be listed as the starter, or a co-starter, but in my opinion, in the competition for the starting job opposite Gaines, and for the number three corner spot, it became clear that it’s going to be between Gibson and Johnson.
I will add one thing to this equation, and I wouldn’t ordinarily insert incoming freshmen into a post-spring review. They weren’t here. But every time I spoke to Coach Ford this spring, he brought up the names of Aarion Penton and Anthony Sherrils, both of whom are expected to begin classes at Missouri next month. When Coach Ford talks about those two incoming freshmen corner prospects, his eyes light up, and it quickly becomes obvious that he is very excited about their talent. In addition, he has suggested that one or both of the true freshmen could possibly see the field this year.
The battle for the starting safety job alongside Braylon Webb was also very competitive, but at the conclusion of the spring, it’s just not as clear where that one is headed.
Senior Matt White held on to the starting position throughout the spring, but his advantage was never by more than a slim margin, and sophomore Ian Simon received Most Improved recognition during the Spring Game. Again, White and Simon split the first-team reps throughout the spring, and they have emerged from the spring in what remains a very close competition.
The most significant development of the spring at the safety position was the emergence of sophomore Cortland Browning, who showed tremendous improvement this spring. Browning is an athlete with good size for the safety position, and this spring, he demonstrated dramatic improvement in his footwork, fundamental technique, and in the consistency of his play. He finished the spring as the number four safety, just slightly behind White and Simon. He used this spring to insert himself squarely in the middle of the competition for playing time, and secured his place on the post-spring two-deep.
It appears that at the conclusion of the spring the next guy in the safety line is RSF Chaston Ward, who kind of came out of the pack, so to speak. He’s a young, but rapidly improving player, who appears to have moved to the front of a pack of safeties who spent the spring working mostly with the third and fourth-team defense. By late in the spring, Ward had positioned himself to be able to enter the competition for playing time this fall.
On the post-spring depth chart, Ward appears to have moved ahead of junior Daniel Easterly, who began the spring working some with the number two defense. I think Easterly has steadily improved as a safety, and was at his best this spring, but Ward is the third young safety to have moved ahead of the junior.
After moving over from corner, sophomore Ernest Payton spent the spring learning his new position. He improved from the beginning of the spring until the end of the spring, and the work he got in this spring, plus a quality off-season spent learning the position, should help the sophomore safety come back in the fall better prepared to play faster.
SS 17 Matt White 6'0" 195 (S)
21 Ian Simon 5’11" 190 (So) 4 Daniel Easterly 6'4" 215 (J)
45 Tyler Davis 6'0" 200 (S)
32 D’Andre McKenzie 6’1” 185 (So)
10 Brock Bondurant 6’2” 215 (RSF)
FS 9 Braylon Webb 6'0" 205 (J)
5 Cortland Browning 6'1" 215 (So) 13 Chaston Ward 6'1" 205 (RSF)
28 Ernest Payton 6'2" 210 (So)
18 Michael Godas 6’0” 210 (So)
CB 31 E.J. Gaines 5'10" 195 (S) 1 John Gibson 5’11” 185 (RSF)
22 David Sowell 5’10” 185 (RSF)
46 Jared Edwards 5’10” 195 (RSF) 34 Jordan Wade 5’9” 195 (J)
7 Randy Ponder 5'10" 190 (S) 3 David Johnson 5’11” 190 (So)
26 Xavier Smith 5'11" 185 (J)
29 Zach Edwards 5’9” 190 (RSF)