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Missouri safeties ride out roller coaster season

Thursday, November 17, 2011 | 8:57 p.m. CST; updated 10:31 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 17, 2011

COLUMBIA — Move them over, move them up.

The Missouri football team uses the phrase to describe movement on the depth chart whenever injuries, underwhelming performances or disciplinary issues affect the team.

It has been said a lot this year, in regard to each position. At the safety, though, the roller coaster ride might be at its bumpiest.

Injuries? Check. Senior captain Kenji Jackson missed the last two weeks of the preseason with a hamstring injury, the longest stretch he said he has missed with the Tigers. Matt White also hobbled into the first game with an ankle injury. Braylon Webb, who replaced White as a starter, who tore knee cartilage during the Baylor game, is out until at least the Kansas game.

Poor play? Check. The cornerbacks cannot take all the blame for the inconsistencies in the secondary. Players such as White and even Jackson, as he will readily admit, have been caught out of position. He said teammates such as recent starter Kenronte Walker have "covered his butt" as much as he has covered theirs.

Disciplinary problems? Check. Tavon Bolden, listed atop the depth chart at free safety following a strong spring, was dismissed from the team for violating team polices that his teammates have indicated were academic-related.

"We have had a lot of setbacks this year," coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. "It happens, and you never know what’s going to happen. Nobody cares, you don't talk about it. You care about who gets hurt, but bottom line, you got to go win. For us, we’ve caused some of our problems, too."

As the season nears its finish, though, the crew looks forward to a fulfilling end to the ride. Against Texas Tech on Saturday, Missouri must stop quarterback Seth Doege and a dangerous air attack to ensure a trip to a bowl game and get a Senior Day victory. 

"Seeing that Texas Tech is a pass-happy offense, it creates a good challenge for us to go out and finish right," Jackson said. "We haven’t played the best pass defense, we know that, but we’re not going to quit. This could be the game we change that."

Jackson said time has flown by since his freshman year, but August probably feels like ages ago to him.

As a leader, Jackson has been called on game after game — never two in a row being wins — to explain. At some points, his optimism has fallen on doubting ears. His answer is to keep enduring, to keep believing, even after the Tigers lost to Oklahoma State and faced Texas A&M and Baylor on the road with a 3-4 record.

The inconsistencies have not stopped. Between an astonishing second half against the Aggies and not giving up a touchdown to Texas last weekend, the defense gave up 697 yards to Baylor. 

The safeties have adapted, though, and Jackson has picked up on his teammates' strengths and weaknesses. Walker is good against the run. At 6 feet, he is two inches shorter than Bolden but has filled the same needs often asked of linebackers.

"You have to know teammates and their strengths," Jackson said. "If I know that Kenronte or Matt can cover one guy better than the other, that can affect how much I have to help them. I know my guys."

"You're starting to see some things click," safeties coach Barry Odom said. "We're playing more consistent over the course of the last few games."

Odom raved about Jackson's leadership, saying that if his two sons grow up to act like the player, he will be a proud father.

Pinkel's suspension following his arrest Wednesday night will cast a pall on the Senior Day game, but Odom said Monday that the game would be memorable for Jackson. 

"You're always going to remember your last game on your home field," he said. "Things go by really quickly, and I think guys start to realize that as time ticks down here."

That time can be extended with one more win.

"No doubt, it’s been like a tradition here going to a bowl, and I know on my watch I want to continue that tradition," Jackson said. "That’s how captains feel."


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