Missouri’s defense limped down the stretch by allowing 148 points in its last three games, but the unit was better during the rest of the season. The Tigers were the only team to hold No. 1 Alabama under 40 points during the regular season, and the defense was key in wins over South Carolina and Kentucky.
Overall, it was an inconsistent and mediocre season for the unit that was good against overmatched teams, and subpar against good ones. Here are the Missourian’s assessments of each defensive and special teams position group this season.
Missouri’s defensive line was the most emblematic unit of the team’s current standing in the SEC. The unit was dominant against lesser opponents like Vanderbilt, but was consistently overmatched against more competitive opponents like Georgia or Florida.
Missouri gave up over 150 yards on the ground five times this season, including allowing 759 rushing yards in its last three games, and was one of the biggest reasons, along with a lack of numbers from COVID-19 absences and opt outs, that the defense imploded over the last three weeks of the season.
The run defense needs to improve and that starts with the play of the defensive line. Missouri does have some hope for improvement with multiple four-star defensive end recruits Travion Ford and Kyran Montgomery with the return of Trajan Jeffcoat, the bright spot for an improved pass rush who had six sacks and earned a spot on this year’s All-SEC team. Missouri could also return a fully healthy Kobie Whiteside if he decides to return and use his extra year of eligibility from the NCAA to help bolster the interior defensive line. Whiteside led the team in sacks in the 2019 season but was in and out of the lineup this year with injuries.
Nick Bolton was a second team All-American and one of the best defensive players in the SEC, but Missouri struggled in its brief look at life without him in the team’s win over Arkansas. The unit struggled with positioning at times which contributed to the team’s struggles against the run.
Bolton and Devin Nicholson each produced quality seasons with over 80 tackles. Replacing Bolton, who had 7½ tackles for loss and two sacks, will be difficult and will likely mean a step back for the position group and the defense next season.
Missouri returned one of the more experienced safety duos in the country in Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, and they both had their moments with Bledsoe sealing Missouri’s goal line stand over LSU with a pass breakup on the final play of the game. Gillespie was also fourth on the team with 46 tackles.
One of the bigger surprises of the season was the performance of Martez Manuel at the team’s strong safety position. Manuel had 64 tackles, seven for a loss, with 2½ sacks and five pass breakups. He was the most active defensive player besides Bolton and looks to be a rising star for the Missouri defense.
The unit overall didn’t make a whole lot of big plays, Missouri was 12th in the conference in turnovers forced with 10, but the trio sealed games for Missouri and fans can be optimistic about Manuel while the team fills in the spots left by Bledsoe and Gillespie.
Manuel could be the oldest player in the secondary as a junior next season with Ennis Rakestraw and J.C. Carlies, a duo who started as freshman at the end of the season, returning with junior Jarvis Ware. The unit wasn’t spectacular, but held opponents under 300 yards passing in seven games. Ware also had the defense’s only touchdown with his pick-six against Florida.
Rakestraw and Carlies held their own against exclusively SEC competition which is impressive as true freshman. If the trio is able to improve next season Missouri could have a formidable pass defense.
Missouri has found its kicker for the next three seasons in Harrison Mevis. After a couple of misses in the middle of the season, the freshman from Warsaw, Indiana, made his final eight kicks to finish 17-for-20 on field goals this season. He was perfect on extra points and was named a freshman All-American by The Athletic. Not much more you could ask of a true freshman kicker.
Grant McKiniss ranked eighth in yards per punt in the conference this season and put together an average season as a first-year starter after transferring from Kentucky.
McKiniss is returning for an extra season of eligibility granted to all players because of COVID-19 and will be a welcomed returnee as the only clear answer at punter for Missouri.
McKiniss had four punts over 50 yards and had over a third of his punts downed inside the opponents 20.
Missouri’s only glaring weakness on special teams was its punt return team. Missouri looked to have finally shrugged off its punt muffing woes before Cade Musser muffed a punt in the season finale against Mississippi State.
Missouri needs to find a returner who can consistently field punts and give Missouri some sort of threat in the return game. Missouri only had 45 punt return yards all season.