Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has noticed a change in Trajan Jeffcoat since the beginning of the season.
After being named to the All-SEC preseason second team, expectations were naturally high for the defensive end, but the first few games of the season showed something was off. Wilks thinks the defensive lineman maybe put too much pressure on himself.
“Just go play the game and just let it come to you,” Wilks said. “That’s what you’re seeing right now, is that he’s going out there just executing his assignment, playing fundamental, (technically) sound and not worried about trying to make every play, and that’s been the difference.”
That’s a big change, but a lot has changed for Missouri’s defense lately.
There came a moment — nobody can quite put their finger on when — that everything seemed to click. The eye test would suggest that was sometime between the Vanderbilt and Georgia matchups ... or perhaps as late as the game against South Carolina.
Whenever it was, Missouri’s defense isn’t the hide-behind-the-couch outfit it was a few games ago.
Now, Wilks says Jeffcoat is having fun. So are all the other players.
“It’s incredible, especially when everyone is having fun,” Jeffcoat said. “Just looking around, and you see an intensity that your teammates bring. It just ignites something in you so you can go hard with them.”
Few people would have predicted this dramatic turnaround in the second half of the season. The Tigers now are a far cry from the woeful performances against Tennessee and Texas A&M in October.
MU defensive back Martez Manuel said a change in mentality occurred in the defensive unit room, where the group recognized that “nobody on the outside is with us.”
“We really just leaned in on each other,” Manuel said. “I feel like at first sometimes people were pointing fingers, ‘The D-line is doing this, we’re not getting any sacks because the DBs aren’t covering’ — stuff like that. At some point, we had to be like, to the outside world, ‘We all suck.’ We had to buy in together, we’ve got to lean on each other and be there for each other, so I feel like that’s really been the difference.”
Accountability, tough love, self-introspection — whatever — appears to have worked.
Missouri’s tackling has improved greatly in its past two games, which bore wins against South Carolina and Florida. The Tigers have allowed fewer than 100 yards rushing in both and conceded their fewest points of the season against the Gators.
Jeffcoat was named SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week on Monday after recording 3½ tackles for loss and one sack against Florida. One week before that, Isaiah McGuire received the same honor for his performance against the Gamecocks.
Missouri’s defense is as cohesive a unit as it has been at any point this season.
Wilks pointed toward an increase in accountability and adopting the team’s philosophy — a “my gap” mentality — as reasons for the sudden upswing.
“I think as a team, it’s very exciting just to see the progress that we’ve made,” Wilks said, “and then also just the grinding and grit that these guys have never quit, they’ve never wavered.”
There has been a notable uptick in Missouri’s performances since the team replaced defensive line coach Jethro Franklin with Al Davis after the Tennessee blowout — the one time the Tigers perhaps did waver on Wilks’ new-look defensive system.
Progress since then has been relatively linear. There’s an argument to be made that all the defense needed was time to get used to the changes.
“I always believed in the team,” Missouri DB Allie Green IV said. “I knew that we were a team coming from a lot of different pieces of a different puzzle, so I knew once we connected the pieces this could be a better team. With time — I just knew with time — things would be different. I just always had faith in being good, and better, and that’s what’s going on right now, so it’s cool.”
The one certainty is the correlation between atmosphere and performance. There’s a clear change in spirit in the camp, and the players are feeling it too.
“It’s very contagious,” Jeffcoat said. “When we’re playing with a lot of energy, it gives off, and everyone just stays fired up, and that just helps us play harder.”
Mevis again honored
For the second week in a row, Missouri sophomore kicker Harrison Mevis was named the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week.
He shared the honor with Tennessee returner Velus Jones after going 3-for-4 on field goals and remaining perfect on the season on extra points in MU’s win.