Missouri’s defense needed a strong start more than ever against then-No. 13 Florida.
Lined up near Ben Hill Griffin Stadium’s east sideline, the first play was going well for Tigers cornerback Christian Holmes until Gators receiver Van Jefferson planted and broke toward the outside. Holmes tugged at Jefferson’s jersey a split-second before Feleipe Franks’ inaccurate throw sailed overheadand a flag for defensive pass interference flew to the ground.
Holmes gave away a first down on Florida’s first offensive play. But, he is plenty familiar with slow starts.
The redshirt sophomore played mostly special teams in his first year at Missouri before dislocating his shoulder during the team’s next fall training camp. The injury sidelined him for the entire 2017 campaign. Holmes began this season as a backup but gradually played his way into a starting job. He has made the most of the opportunity.
Holmes wasn’t himself when he returned from his shoulder injury. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he’s a big cornerback who embraces contact. During spring camp, however, he tried to play with a cover corner’s mindset. His former roommate and fellow cornerback DeMarkus Acy noticed.
“You’re big as hell, bro,” the junior told Holmes. “You’ve got to go back to your physical style.”
The advice helped. Holmes focused on learning who he is as a player during fall camp and has translated that knowledge into success on game day. He relishes being a part of the team’s game plan and playing on base downs, something he hasn’t done much of since high school.
Of course, there’s also the emotional aspect of returning from injury. On Sept. 1, Holmes ran through the tunnel onto Faurot Field for the first time in more than a year. The moment meant a lot to him. He thought back to the 2017 Texas Bowl, which took place about eight months earlier.
“The last time I was running out of the tunnel I was crying like a baby,” he said. “Just shedding tears like, ‘Man, I wish I could be out there with (my) boys.’”
Holmes and Acy were part of the same recruiting class in 2016. It didn’t take long for the two corners to forge a connection. The pair works out together every summer — weekends included — and often talked about sharing the field, even when they were still freshmen.
“It’s about time it happened,” Holmes said.
They love starting alongside each other and said their connection helps them stay on the same page every Saturday. Both provide a physical edge that can intimidate smaller receivers.
That presence has led to improvement in Missouri’s previously porous pass defense over the last few games. Holmes has certainly done his part — he leads the Tigers with nine pass breakups and two interceptions in 2018 even though he didn’t start until Week 7. He has tallied at least one pass defended in each of his last five games.
“I got hurt, so I couldn’t show them (what I can do),” Holmes said. “I just finally got my year to show people.”
“We’re starting to see what we thought we were going to see during the recruiting process,” Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters added.
Walters said Holmes has made lots of plays in practice this year, and it’s translated into games. He has watched the cornerback grow in many areas but still wants to see improvement in one key aspect: consistency.
“There are times where he’s really, really hot,” Walters said, “and then times where he’s cold, just from a concentration and focus standpoint.”
Consistency will come as Holmes continues to gain experience and mature. Sometimes, the best way to learn the gritty details of football is getting beat on Saturdays. Acy, who has also been playing well this season, had to learn a similar process from his sophomore to junior seasons.
“You can’t coach experience,” Walters said of Acy. “You’ve got to go through it. And he has gone through it. We’re starting to see the benefits of that.”
Holmes is just starting this process and has already shown tremendous strides. After his immediate pass interference penalty against Florida, the Gators looked to his side of the field on the very next play. Holmes recognized the play immediately, charged downhill and walloped Florida’s Josh Hammond right as the ball arrived, holding him to a 5-yard gain.
Imagine the benefits Missouri will reap once Holmes learns from a few more mistakes.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.