As Missouri football players returned to campus from their winter vacations in January, with a bowl game loss still fresh in their minds, head coach Barry Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters were already devising something new.
When Khalil Oliver went into his individual “exit meeting” to wrap up the season like everyone else, Walters had a proposition at the ready.
The coaches were considering a change in Missouri’s defensive formation, Walters said, which would move Oliver to a strong safety position with Ronnell Perkins. Oliver played more traditional deep safety coverage in 2018, and Perkins was listed as a linebacker. MU was preparing to trade out its third linebacker and 4-3 scheme to put a third safety on the field at all times.
When former Texas Tech defensive coordinator David Gibbs was hired as Missouri’s new defensive backs coach that same month, he arrived to find Odom and Walters already discussing the reconfiguration. Gibbs, whose career has taken him from college position coaching to the NFL and back, was already accustomed to the nickel defense and its use of five DBs.
“They were actually evolving into that anyway as I walked in the building,” Gibbs said, “so it was a perfect storm.”
The result of that storm: Missouri will run a 4-2-5 defense in 2019, with four defensive linemen, two linebackers (as opposed to three last year) and five defensive backs (two cornerbacks and three safeties, rather than two).
Such a defense is characterized by the different positioning and responsibilities of the three safeties. There’s the traditional free safety, the last line of defense who tracks the quarterback’s eyes and picks up downfield pass coverage; the strong safety, who plays closer to the line of scrimmage around linebacker-depth on the “strong side” (the side where the tight end lines up for the offense), typically picking up coverage on a slot receiver or tight end on pass plays; and the boundary safety, positioned on the shorter “boundary” side of the field depending on the hash where the ball is snapped.
The change was a product of coaches recognizing that the Tigers would have more depth in the secondary than at linebacker, a position where two of three starters were seniors last year. It’s also a way to add numbers to their lacking pass coverage — MU’s 262 yards allowed per game in 2018 ranked 112th of 129 FBS teams — while remaining flexible enough to pounce on the SEC’s reputed running backs.
“I think it makes us faster. I think it puts our best players on the field, which you always want to do as a defense,” Gibbs said Wednesday. “It lets you play in space more, because you have more athletic guys out there than big linebackers. Also, when you do blitz, you have faster guys blitzing. So I think it’s a combination of all three of those, and obviously your coverage is going to be better. And you can be more elaborate in your coverage schemes because you’re playing with five DBs.”
Gibbs pointed out that most teams use some form of nickel formation on third downs and other obvious passing situations.
“I think we’ve been that way on third down anyway too,” he said. “This year you’re just going to see it more on first and second down.”
As of now, junior Joshuah Bledsoe is listed as the starting free safety; Perkins is at the top of the depth chart for strong safety, though Oliver will likely share snaps; and junior Tyree Gillespie is slated to play the boundary side.
“The boundary safety, he’s a bounce safety, so he’s bouncing,” Gillespie said. “As they say ‘Hut,’ he’s bouncing and reading for a run. If he clears the run and it’s a pass, he goes to the post (downfield toward the middle). If it’s a run, he can bounce and then just take off to where the run is. Read the play.”
Gillespie says his foot speed is a good fit for the boundary position’s reading responsibility, because he has to start further from the line of scrimmage but may need to cover ground faster if it’s a run. That’s how the assignments were made across the board; each of the safeties are “cross-trained” to play each variation, Gibbs said, but everyone is matched with their specific position based on individual skill sets.
“I’m kind of the fastest,” Gillespie said. “Bled (Bledsoe) is kind of the best in coverage,” fitting for the deep positioning and instinct required of a free safety (Bledsoe led MU in interceptions during spring camp). “And then we also have Khalil and Perk (Perkins), who are the more physical guys who are in the box.”
For Perkins, adjusting to a strong safety’s linebacker-hybrid duties won’t be too radical. He recorded a sack when given the chance to pass-rush at Tennessee last season. And before he was ever used as a linebacker, Perkins was a converted defensive back to begin with.
Oliver has had a bit more of a transition to make, but as an avid studier of film, he has embraced the challenge.
“I love playing strong safety,” he said. “Everything’s right there. You’ve gotta be able to cover slot receivers, tight ends or a running back coming out of the backfield. And we’ve got a really smart group of linebackers, so we’re always talking. All three of us are communicating and are able to pass off routes, pass off players quickly, and it just makes for a fun experience, especially if you like to hit.”
Oliver and Perkins both have body types more apt for landing big hits, and they’ve each latched onto Gibbs’ turnover-forcing rhetoric. Missouri’s 16 takeaways in 2018 were tied for 93rd in the FBS. When Gibbs arrived in Columbia, his first impression on players was memorable.
“’Go get the money,’” Gillespie said. “’Go get the money.’ That’s what he said: ‘If you want to get paid, you gotta go get the ball.’ He just said it right away as soon as I (met) him. ‘Go get the ball, go get the ball.’”
Gibbs says forcing turnovers is more of a team identity to preach than something that requires specific drills, but he’s been satisfied with the intensity it has sparked throughout spring and fall practices. He wants it to be clear, though, that all the credit for the 4-2-5 defensive switch goes to Odom and Walters.
“I’m just looking to be part of the puzzle,” Gibbs said. “Help Coach Walters and Coach Odom as best I can. I’d say it’s a good match.”