The University of Missouri defense returns eight of its 11 starters from a year ago, but new head coach Barry Odom is looking for some leadership from his safeties.
Anthony Sherrils, who will be a redshirt junior this fall, is back as one of the starting safeties. But Ian Simon's absence, after he completed his eligibility, creates an opening for a new starter at the other safety spot as well as some uncertainty in the back of the Tigers’ defense.
“The communication and the leadership part of it is more than anything on the back end,” Odom said. “When you’ve got one guy playing one coverage and one maybe another because you’re not communicating, that results in big plays. So that is obviously hugely important for us defensively to make sure we over-communicate and somebody needs to step up, which they are. They need to take ownership like a quarterback would on the other side of the ball.”
Sherrils, a 6-foot, 200-pounder, was third on the team in tackles (64) in 2015 as a full-time starter after serving as a backup the previous season.
Now the Tigers need Sherrils to step up to another level as both a player and leader — especially considering the safety opposite him, be it Thomas Wilson, Cameron Hilton, JUCO signee Greg Taylor or whoever, won’t have nearly as much experience.
“He’s making steps in the right direction,” Odom said. “… He’s so gifted athletically that he can get away with some things with his key reads not exactly right. He has a focus on trying to get that done every time, every snap, having his eyes in the right spot and then fundamentally making sure that he goes through his progressions. If he does that he’s got a chance to be a great player.”
For his part, Sherrils already considers himself to be a leader.
“Last year I was a leader,” he said. “I was a starter and able to make plays.”
The Kansas City native understands that is part of his responsibility as a returning starter. He has to be a leader on the back end.
“It’s my job,” he said. “It’s something I have to do. And I should do. Last year I did it just by example. I lead the secondary in tackles. It’s just something that you have to do.”
Hilton, a rising sophomore who started out at safety before moving to wide receiver last season, has seen Sherrils’ leadership, which extends beyond the playing field.
When Hilton arrived on campus, Sherrils became his big brother. The youngster explained Sherrils has been “showing him the ropes” since he arrived in Columbia and has been hard on him at times.
“The way he plays, he shows you how to be a good leader,” Hilton said. “You can’t just talk about it, you have to show. I hope my game gets up to where his game is. He’s a stud. He’s always telling me what to do outside of football. He’s a good big brother.”
Sherrils said he’s working on taking his game to another by learning the game better and knowing what he has to do within the framework of the revamped defensive scheme that has changed under new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross.
“Just really knowing my assignment, knowing the game more and communicating that,” Sherrils said.
The safety wasn’t willing to reveal too much about the differences in the new-look defense, but he did offer that it is different.
“Coach Cross is his own coach, so he’s going to do what he wants to do,” Sherrils said. “TCU had a successful defense, so he brought that here.”
One thing that will be different is whoever earns the starting job opposite Sherrils now that Simon is gone.
That could be Hilton, who started out at that spot this spring before missing time with an injury. It could be Wilson, a 5-10, 190-pound junior from Georgia who has 31 tackles in 25 games the past two seasons. Or it could be someone else, like freshman Ronnell Perkins or incoming recruits Taylor or Texas high schooler Demarkus Acy.
While it may take some time for a starter at that position to emerge, the facts remain that Missouri’s deep and talented defense must replace two starters in the secondary — at safety and at cornerback — and needs several players to step up.
Sherrils expressed confidence that the Tigers have players ready to fill the roles that Simon and cornerback Kenya Dennis handled so well last season.
“John Gibson, he’s played a lot,” Sherrils said of the senior-to-be cornerback. “He’s been here for a while. They kind of split reps last year with KD being injured. Thomas Wilson, he’s been playing for a while. He’s a junior. Logan Cheadle. They’ve all been playing for a long time, so those guys really step into that role.”
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