Last season, Brian Smith provided Missouri with a speed rusher off the edge of its defense and the team named him freshman of the year, an honor he shared with fellow defensive end Xzavie Jackson.
After leading the team with eight sacks in 2003, Smith had none in the first two games this season and was making little impact for the Missouri defense.
After the 24-14 loss against Troy and with Smith struggling at strong side end, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus moved him back to the “stud position,” or weak side defensive end, in Missouri’s defensive scheme.
Now, Smith routinely rushes the quarterback rather than dropping off into coverage.
“He does more rushing there which is Brian’s forte,” Eberflus said. “It is something he has done in the past, so he feels more comfortable there.”
Smith, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 225 pounds, instantly provided a spark at his old position, gaining his first sack against Ball State and provided consistent pressure Saturday against Baylor. He earned three sacks and twice hurried the Baylor quarterback for incompletions.
Smith said he was not pleased with his production early in the season but he headed into the Baylor game with increased emotion.
“Enthusiasm,” Smith, a Denton, Texas native, said was the difference in his play against the Bears.
“This Baylor game for some reason, early in the week, I was pumped. On Tuesday I was pumped, I was like, ‘We’re going back to Texas, I’m ready.’ I was just pumped all week and so when it came for game day, it was just time to let it all out.”
Although Eberflus credits Smith’s increased production to his comfort at the rush end position, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Smith is giving a more consistent effort.
“He’s picking it up a little bit,” Pinkel said. “For whatever reason, I don’t think he was playing quite as well at the beginning of the season. I think he got going and he’s making plays and he’s playing better.”
Smith said while his speed gives him an advantage over other defensive linemen in chasing down quarterbacks, his build causes problems if he can’t avoid blocks.
“I know when they get their hands on me, especially a 350-punder if his hands are good, he more than likely will take me down, Smith said. “So I have to be elusive and try not to let them get their hands on me.”
Pinkel said with Smith wreaking havoc in the opposing backfield, the Missouri defense can continue its vast improvement over past seasons. The Tigers improved to fifth in the Big 12 Conference in total defense a year ago from 11th in 2002, and Pinkel set the goal at top three this season.
So far the unit is exceeding expectations leading the conference. The Tigers have allowed opponents’ 259.4 yards per game. In conference play, Missouri is allowing only 212 yards per game.
“I think that we’re improving and I think that’s important when you want them in the top three in the league at the end of the year,” Pinkel said. “I am certainly pleased with our defense making progress. I think we have to continue to work hard and get better and I think we can.”
Missouri is also getting better at forcing opponents to make mistakes with 10 interceptions after only nine last season.
Cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell, who is tied for the most interceptions in the Big 12 with three, said the defense talked about creating more takeaways as soon as last season ended. The unit is responding with 14, the fourth-most in conference.
Turnovers is one of three categories Eberflus focuses on, with rush defense and third-down conversions. Missouri is third in the conference in both categories.
“Those are the three we look at and if you stay on top in the conference in those three categories you have a chance to be good in the last one, which is scoring defense,” Eberflus said.
The Tigers are third in scoring defense, allowing 12.6 points per game.
TELEVISED TIGERS: Missouri’s homecoming game against Oklahoma State on Oct. 23 will start at 2:30 p.m. ABC will televise the game as a regional broadcast.