Dedrick Harrington admits to acting like a “dummy” this season.
Henry Sweat said Harrington and fellow newcomers Marcus Bacon and David Richard add athleticism to the linebacker corps, a group that Xzavie Jackson called one of the best units in the country.
Since switching to a 4-3 base defense in the offseason, the Tigers’ defense has made the next step in becoming a high-level defense, ranking first in the Big 12 Conference and the big difference is the addition of the three new linebackers.
Last season, Missouri played some 4-3, but the base defense included two linebackers and five defensive backs. The smaller defense struggled against the run, so coach Gary Pinkel and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus decided to go from the 4-2-5 to the more common 4-3 in the hopes of improving against the run. Overall, Missouri’s defense has improved from allowing 380.7 yards per game to 277.4, including a seven-yard per game decrease against the run.
The biggest change in the new defense was the addition of an additional linebacker position, and making that move were former safeties Harrington and Bacon and former running back Richard. The three brought an athletic dimension to the position.
“They obviously add a lot of athleticism to the linebacker corps and it’s just raising the overall level and playmaking ability of the linebacking corps as a group,” Sweat said.
Harrington and Bacon were safeties in high school and as Tigers, so moving to linebacker was new. Bacon said the lone difference between playing sam, or strong-side linebacker and the rover position is being closer to the line of scrimmage.
“The difference really is like the sam is sort of like the rover except that it comes up to the box sometimes, that’s the only difference really,” Bacon said. “I play in the box and get my read from the guard where last year I played off the receivers. It’s basically the same position except coming in the box.”
Harrington also said there are minor changes at linebacker, but those changes are made less difficult by peppering Sweat and fellow senior James Kinney with questions.
“I think each week just the different schemes, the different ways the plays are ran from the other teams,” Harrington said. “As far as jargon and things like that, they usually stay the same, but just the philosophies of the different offenses that we play against.
“I always look to them (Sweat and Kinney), I’m always asking them questions like a dummy. Just anything, because they’ve been playing there, I mean Kinney’s been playing football since what, the third grade? I mean, I just try to pick up anything I can from them and whatever coach can’t teach me, my peers hopefully can teach me.”
Richard, a transfer from Michigan State, where he led the Spartans in rushing in 2002, also said the new linebacking trio has put extra pressure on the senior leaders and linebackers coach Dave Steckel.
“Three guys at a new position that’s kind of like having, if you’ve got three true freshmen and you’re trying to teach them the defense and stuff,” Richard said “So he’s doing a good job with that along with our senior leaders, Henry Sweat and James Kinney. They’ve been doing a great job on the field, off the field, in the film room. Those guys have been a great help to us.”
With the three new linebackers, the Missouri coaches expected a learning curve. Eberflus is pleased with the progress the defense has made, although he insists there is still room for improvement.
“There are certainly different responsibilities and guys are adjusting to it and are doing a pretty good job, and we have to make a good push at the end,” Eberflus said. “They picked it up, they obviously have to improve, as we all do. But they picked it up well; it’s a different position from being outside to being inside.”
Bacon said he agrees that he does need to improve, but still he believes the coaches are pleased with how the linebackers have been playing.
Harrington said he looks to improve at eliminating mistakes every time he takes the field.
“I think every day I just go to learn and do something different and not make the same mistakes and just try to be as coachable as possible,” Harrington said. “…And learn every single time I’m on the field, every time I watch the film and just pick up something every single day.”
Harrington, Bacon and Richard have showed that improvement on the field, at least according to their defensive teammates.
“Our linebackers are pretty good, we’ve got some of the best in the nation and nobody sees it, but we do,” Jackson, a sophomore defensive end, said.
Junior defensive tackle C.J. Mosley said the new base defense is critical to Missouri’s improvement on defense.
“Of course, coaches make changes for the better of the team and a better defense. So, you have to point the finger at that,” Mosley said.
Richard agrees that the 4-3 has been a positive change for the Tigers, but he also said a change in mentality was needed as a unit to improve.
“Definitely, we have a different mentality,” Richard said. “We have to give it up to our coaches really, they give us the play and all we have to do is execute, get in our run gaps and we’re going to stop the run with the defense they put out there is great. From our 4-3 to the nickel package, even when we go to the nickel we have Jason Simpson who comes down and he hits like a linebacker. That 4-3 is one of the reasons we’ve been so good on defense this year.”