Gary Pinkel had one main concern after Missouri’s 52-20 win in its first game of the season against Arkansas State.
The Tigers allowed 350 passing yards against the Indians, including 240 to quarterback Nick Noce, who was making his first college start and left the game in the third quarter with cramps in his calf muscle. This performance by Missouri’s secondary was reason for Pinkel to worry.
The Missouri defensive backs responded to the poor showing, though, allowing 121 passing yards in the loss to Troy and just 77 in a shutout win against Ball State. The quick improvement in the passing defense has moved the Tigers into third in the Big 12 Conference and 41st in the nation with 182.7 yards allowed per game.
Shirdonya Mitchell, A.J. Kincaide and Marcus King have been responsible for this turnaround, sharing most of the playing time at defensive back. This week King took over the first position on the depth chart at one of the defensive back spots after Kincaide held it for the first three games.
He said the defensive backs knew they had to elevate their play after struggling against an inexperienced Arkansas State team.
“At the defensive back position, all we’re doing is making sure we stay on top of guys and making sure no one gets behind us and making sure we get better,” King said.
Like quarterback, defensive back is a high-pressure position where mistakes are easily noticeable because of a lot of one-on-one competition with receivers. Pinkel talked Monday about the difficulties defensive backs face.
“(Defensive back) is a position where you have to have a lot of confidence because you’re put on an island against wide receivers, some of the best in the country,” Pinkel said.
After facing inexperienced quarterbacks in its first three games, Missouri will face players more capable at the position when it moves into conference play. Colorado’s Joel Klatt is eighth all-time on the Buffaloes career passing yards list (3,180) and was 26-for-33 for 371 passing yards and three touchdowns in Colorado’s 52-21 win against North Texas last week.
“He’s a very, very good athlete,” Pinkel said. “I think he’s got good football sense. He’s an experienced player. You always prefer to have a football team that does not have an experienced quarterback coming in. He’s doing a good job with that offense.”
The Tigers have taken advantage of playing weaker quarterbacks, with five interceptions in three games. Kincaide, Mitchell and King all have one interception and said that they will continue to look for the big play against quarterbacks who are less likely to make mistakes.
“We’re still aggressive, because then that makes you get even more interceptions,” Kincaide said. “We’re leading with interceptions right now and we just want to keep it rising up.”
Entering conference play also means covering bigger, more athletic receivers. Only one wide receiver on Colorado’s depth chart is under 6 feet tall, and the Buffaloes have three receivers who are 6-foot-2-inches tall or taller. Mitchell is the tallest Tiger defensive back at six feet.
“Things are going to get tougher,” Kincaide said. “We know things are going to get tougher and that’s why we know when conference play starts, it’s time for no errors. Everything has to be right and we got to be ready.”
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A strong effort by Missouri’s defensive line this season has helped the defensive backs improve their performance. Tackle C.J. Mosley leads the line, ranking first in the Big 12 with six tackles for a loss of 31 yards and tying for first with three sacks.
Kincaide said strong play on the line takes pressure of the defensive backs and allows them to make plays.
“They get those hands up and they bat the ball down and if you’re in a bad situation that can help you,” Kincaide said. “Another reason is they get pressure on the quarterback and force a lot of bad throws or tipped throws. Anything wobbly helps us a lot.”
Mitchell has used that advantage to become the Tigers’ top defensive back this season, ranking third in the Big 12 in passes defended, with three broken up and one interception. The senior, who also returned kicks against Arkansas State and Troy, was a wide receiver in his first two seasons, but switched to defensive back in 2003.
Mitchell one of the best athletes on the team, running the 40-yard dash in a team record 4.28 seconds in the spring, and Pinkel said he should have switched Mitchell to defensive back earlier in his career.
“When we got here, if we could’ve, that probably would have been a good move,” Pinkel said. “I think he’s really, really adjusted well and he’s where he should be. He’s where he should be without question. But it’s also a position that just takes time and experience to play.”
In addition to the pressure of playing his second season at the position as the Tigers’ top defensive back, Mitchell’s wife is expecting a baby. The due date is Oct. 27, three days before the game against Nebraska.
“I won’t be nervous about that until maybe next week because I know the due date is around that time,” Mitchell said. “When it comes it comes that’ll be the happiest day of my life.”
For now the defensive backs are able to focus their efforts on football and having a strong start to the conference season.
“The competition is going to crank up a little bit more, and we’re prepared for it,” Kincaide said. “We got to crank it up every week against every team.”