InsideMizzou.com's early look at the defense

InsideMizzou.com's Erik Johnson takes an early look at the Mizzou Tigers 2009 defense. Spring practice begins March 10, and this spring figures to be a key learning camp, with several new faces seeing starting action for the very first time. Go inside to get a feel of what to expect from the Tiger D this spring and fall.

Most Tiger fans expected to see a stout defense in 2008. Missouri had shown improvement in 2007 and returned 10 starters including William Moore and Sean Weatherspoon.

Instead, Missouri fans saw a defense that did not live up to its billing. Tiger fans will likely look at the defensive performance last season and play Sunday morning quarterback. They will try to figure out what changes Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus needs to make to improve a unit that gave up over 30 points per game in Big XII play.

As a coach once told me, "the key to becoming a better coach is getting better players." While this quote obviously does not tell the whole story of a becoming a better coach, Eberflus hopes he is already a better coach heading into 2009 than he was a year ago.

One key to improving the defense will be speed. At many times last season, the Tigers defense just did not look as fast as the opposing offense. Now some of this can be attributed to being out of position or being unsure of one's responsibilities, but Missouri definitely needs an infusion of speed on defense.

In my estimation, the Tigers will be faster at all three levels in 2009. At defensive end, Missouri will likely replace Stryker Sulak and Tommy Chavis with some combination of Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith and Aldon Smith. While Sulak's replacement may be an equal in the speed category, whoever replaces Chavis will bring more speed to the table.

At the linebacker position, the Tigers only lose starter Brock Cristopher. Despite Cristopher's solid play for the last two seasons, nobody expects him to turn in any 4.4 readings at Missouri's Pro Day. The most likely candidate to replace Cristopher is junior college transfer Joshua Tatum who has clocked numerous 4.4's in the forty-yard dash.

In the secondary, the Tigers lose William Moore, Justin Garrett and Castine Bridges. Moore never looked full speed in 2008 and neither Garrett or Bridges possessed above-average speed for their positions.

Towards the end of last season, freshman Kenji Jackson began to see playing time in Garrett's spot in the Tiger's base 4-3 scheme. Despite making a few freshman mistakes, it was obvious that Jackson covered much more ground than Garrett.

One candidate to replace Bridges is Notre Dame transfer Munir Prince. While Prince had his struggles with the Fighting Irish, not many have ever questioned his speed.

In addition to increasing speed, the Tigers will need to find a way to get consistent pressure from their front four in 2009. Too many times last season, quarterbacks were able to sit in the pocket for upwards of four seconds waiting for their receiver to find an opening in the secondary. For most of the year, if Sulak was unable to create pressure, the quarterback had all day to find his man.

Finally, Missouri could use a few different looks to help out the defense in '09. As last season progressed, the Tigers seemingly decreased their playbook to cut down on confusion. However, this led to opposing quarterbacks getting the same pre-snap look over and over again.

I also think it would be beneficial to see Eberflus take a page out of Steve Spagnuolo's playbook on passing situations and line-up four defensive ends. Imagine Sheldon Richardson and Brian Coulter inside with the two Smiths lined up on their outsides. Eberflus could run stunts and zone-blitzes galore with those athletes on the front line.

Eberflus also increased the number of plays the Tiger defense ran out of the 4-2-5 as the season progressed. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues as Missouri continues to add athletes that are able to play both the safety and outside linebacker positions.

With an injection of speed, eight months for players to hear about their struggles and an off-season for Pinkel, Eberflus and company to study game film, I expect a hungry, improved Tiger defense in 2009.


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories