Most important changes of 2004: #2

InsideMizzou continues its countdown of the 10 most important changes from last season to this year. Coming in at No. 2 is the much-talked about shift in the defense, which is less of a game plan change than a new defensive attitude.

4-2-5, 4-4, 4-3, what's the difference? What's in a name?

Not much. Just take it from junior S Jason Simpson.

"We just changed the names," he said Monday. "We do the exact same things; we just put a bigger guy in there for the rover."

Missouri's former defensive scheme, despite the debate about its true appearance, is now gone. Dedrick Harrington has been clamped down in the middle of the defense, and, even with regular appearances from senior reserve Henry Sweat, the Tigers will need the sophomore from Mexico to step up his game.

And that, in a nutshell, is the new 4-3 defense. The coaching staff knows what to expect from nine of its defensive starters; what Harrington and sophomore David Richard provide as linebackers could make or break the scheme, not to mention the defense.

The mechanics of the switch break down like this: In the old 4-4/4-2-5 scheme, the team employed a rover (Harrington) and whip (Simpson), who moved all around the field. In the 4-3, a Sam, or strong-side, linebacker joins the defense for every play run in the base set.

"(The Sam) is a little bit bigger guy, more of a linebacker pro type with David Richard and (sophomore) Marcus Bacon," Simpson said. "We went to a real 4-3, so we changed the name."

To this point, things seem to be going well. Simpson, the team's top free safety, actually plays more like a strong safety, regardless of the title of his position. Simpson has seen the defense develop in front of him from spring ball on and, so far, he likes what he sees.

"The defense actually came together real well," he said. "It seems to be helping us a lot with the run. We've been working on the rush defense, trying to get our rank up. It's been helping a lot."

One of the top measurements of a defense is its ability to force turnovers. The Tigers excelled in turnover ratio last season, but that was mostly due to the sure hands of the offense. Coach Gary Pinkel said earlier this fall that he wanted the team to reach the mid-30s in takeaways this season, which would be quite an increase from the 24 turnovers forced last season.

The defense took the ball away at least once in each of the fall's three scrimmages, but it is difficult to judge a defense on its performance against the second-team offense. Then again, the Tigers will face many players of that caliber in this year's nonconference schedule.

"We've been getting a lot of takeaways in scrimmages," Simpson said. "The defense has done really well, actually. We won every scrimmage so far and we did better than we did in the spring. I think it's progressing nicely."

Richard's development is likely just as important as Harrington's. Required to learn a new side of the ball, a new position and a new scheme, Richard has had a lot thrown at him since spring practice began. Simpson may have the best view of Richard's development from his position deep in the secondary. To him, Richard hasn't been the only player to stand out.

"D. Richard has been doing really well, but so has Marcus," Simpson said. "Marcus had been working on his blitz technique. That might have been one of his weaker spots, but it's not weak anymore. They're both doing real well. I would be confident with either one starting."

For now, and likely for most or all of the season, it will be Richard. There is a clear connection between Richard's change and the move former Tiger Tauras Ferguson made in 2001. Both moved from tailback at a different institution (Michigan State for Richard, Coffeyville Community College for Ferguson) to a key defensive position (outside linebacker for Richard, rover for Ferguson) with Missouri. Simpson said he sees the similarity and hopes for similar results.

"It's a testament to him," Simpson said of Richard. "He's been working hard, for the summer and the spring, just working hard ever since Jan. 1...

"It's paid off for him, and for our defense."

Whether or not the scheme shift pays off is a story that will not be written until the season ends.

Check back tomorrow as our countdown wraps up with No. 1.

Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories