Everybody on the Missouri defense has spent the preseason working on run defense, even the unit that is chiefly responsible for stopping the pass.
The Tigers’ secondary hasn’t stood idle after the defense allowed a combined 667 yards rushing against Kansas State and Arkansas, the final two losses in 2003. To help improve the run defense, the secondary has focused on the concept of leverage.
“Whenever you’re stopping the run, a lot of times you’re matched up in numbers the front seven, they’re not always going to be the only ones in there, so your safeties and corners have to come and help cover, too,” free safety Jason Simpson said. “Our corners have to come in and make plays on leverage, and safeties have to run the alley really well. To get that extra man in there, get that better read, go run hard, tackle better, you need a safety or a corner to help.”
Leverage, on a running play, calls for the perimeter defense to select the correct approach to make the tackle. If he cannot, he must be in position to force the ball carrier back to the pursuit and strength of the defense. The Tigers have struggled with letting ball carriers break outside of the leverage.
“All of a sudden when a player breaks outside, generally, leverage broke down,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “(A) defensive player took the wrong angle, has the wrong technique, allowed it to go outside where he has no help, then you get 35-yard gains.
“If you leverage the ball and you’re going to miss or force the play inside where you’ve got the pursuit coming, that’s where we’re really trying to improve on. That is how you reduce big plays.”
The unit supporting the front seven will be a more experienced, more confident group compared with the group that took the field last season. The Tigers return their starting safeties, Simpson, a junior, and senior Nino Williams, and have two cornerbacks in senior Shirdonya Mitchell and junior A.J. Kincade who Simpson called “best corners we’ve had since we’ve been here.”
Mitchell said the experience will benefit them because it creates cohesion between the players.
“Basically, we’re playing as a team back there,” Mitchell said. “I think the corners are more confident this year than last year at this point.
“Me personally, I’m more confident because last year I didn’t have that much experience. This year I have more experience; I’m getting more reps.”
Mitchell and Kincade will also have the advantage of having Simpson, who will start for the third year, and Williams behind them.
“We know the safeties in the secondary they’ve got our backs because they’ve got more experience,” Mitchell said. “I know the corners last year made some mistakes and the safeties had their backs. We’re just working as a team right now.”
The work has showed in practice, where the No. 1 defense has consistently limited the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses in running drills and scrimmages.
“In practice, we haven’t been giving up as many big plays. That’s a plus for us,” Williams said. “There aren’t many big plays passing or running. That means we’re taking care, not letting runs sprout into the secondary and not many passes thrown in the secondary.”
Even though the secondary has spent a good deal of time working on run support, Williams said it views its pass defense with the same importance. Although it wasn’t terrible, the Tigers struggled at times, allowing 437 yards to Texas Tech, and ranked sixth in the Big 12 Conference.
Williams also said he and the rest of the secondary missed too many opportunities for interceptions. With nine interceptions, the Tigers ranked ninth in the Big 12.
“We had plenty of opportunities to get them last year, just didn’t take advantage of them,” Williams said. “I played a big role in that. Just coming up with more takeaways (is what we need to do).”
MOVIN’ UP: Missouri released its depth chart on Monday and there were slight moves compared to the pre-fall camp list. Redshirt freshman Martin Rucker passed Victor Sesay at tight end and junior walk-on Joe Tantarelli passed Alex Pettersen as the No. 1 kicker.