Defense has something to prove

Last summer, Brian Smith had a lot of people saying, "Wait…what?"

It wasn't because Smith was on the team. He's athletic enough. He's fast enough. He's tough enough. It was Smith's position that caused all the surprise.

At 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, Smith is about as small of a defensive lineman as anyone will find in Division I.

"I was like, ‘He better be fast,'" defensive lineman Russ Bell said. "And he really is."

Smith, a redshirt freshman, personifies Missouri's new defense: a lot of talent, a lot of speed, not a lot of experience.

On Gary Pinkel's depth chart released Monday, the Tigers have five returning starters: Jason Simpson, James Kinney, Atiyyah Ellison, C.J. Mosley and Michael Harden. Harden and linebacker Brandon Barnes are the only two senior starters. So why all the optimism? Missouri's looking at the talent and speed, and hoping the experience comes along,

This summer, Smith isn't fooling anyone. He has earned his way to the top of the defensive line with unparalleled speed. His speed will help with the pass rush, but he still has a lot to prove on the run. Smith is confident enough.

"Of course I can stop the run," Smith said. "That's like asking if I can play football."

Then again, stopping the run won't be the biggest responsibility for Smith. That job belongs to defensive tackles Bell, Attiyah Ellison and C.J. Mosley. It might be the most experienced part of the defense because all three started games last season.

James Kinney will anchor the defense at linebacker along with safety-turned-linebacker Brandon Barnes. Kinney had 148 tackles last season, and he is on pace to break the school record. Barnes has been improving, and he beat out Derrick Ming and Henry Sweat for the job. No position, though, has more importance than the secondary. Nor does it have more room to improve. The Tigers gave up 282.6 passing yards per game, bad enough for last in the Big 12 by more than 30 yards.

So Pinkel switched it up a bit. Linebacker Jason Simpson moved to outside safety, and he will play on the other side of redshirt freshman Dedrick Harrington. Pinkel is excited about Harrington's prospects.

"He's got it all," Pinkel said. "He's strong, he's fast, he's quick. He looks good walking off the bus. He's just got to master the position. He works very hard at it.

Pinkel brought in Nino Williams from junior college to play free safety. At cornerback, Michael Harden is the only returning starter in the secondary. Pinkel expects him to finish All-Big 12. The last starter is cornerback Calvin Washington, a sophomore who redshirted last season.

The defense is already looking better, but Pinkel admits he won't know exactly how much better until after Illinois.

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