At the beginning of the season, Missouri’s secondary looked like a student trying to flunk out of school — with blown assignments and missed opportunities doing them in.
Over the course of the season the backbone of Missouri’s defense has done a complete 180, as the program has turned its season around.
After a position shuffle, some younger players coming into their own and the emergence of Anthony Sherrils, the unit is now playing its best football as the team heads into its final regular-season game against Arkansas on Friday.
In the team’s season-opener against Missouri State, the defense gave up 492 yards of total offense, most of which were in the air. While the secondary did have a turnover in senior cornerback Logan Cheadle’s interception, throughout the game the unit looked lost and confused on coverages.
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The team was also playing young players such as DeMarkus Acy and true freshman Adam Sparks, and it took time for them to get fully acclimated.
“I talked a little bit about building a relationship with the younger guys as the season’s gone on, being able to trust each other,” Cheadle said. “Everyone’s going to be in their gap, hold their right leverage, not try to do too much.”
While Missouri’s secondary spent the first half of the season going through growing pains, a number of things changed, which led to some positive results.
The team moved true freshman safety Josh Bledsoe to linebacker in the middle of the season and switched Kansas State transfer Kaleb Prewett from strong safety to free safety with Sherrils. The move yielded immediate results when Sherrils started to force fumbles, rack up interceptions and get his first career sack.
“You get tired of getting beat,” linebacker Terez Hall said. “Beat on your assignment, tired of losing games, something had to change. Either you’re going to change on the roster or you’re going to step up and make some plays.”
The emergence of Missouri’s defensive line also helped out the secondary since it gave opposing offenses more to worry about.
Both MU coach Barry Odom and Hall said that when the front four is causing the opposing quarterback to change his decision-making, it’s easier for the back seven to get a better read on possible routes and plays.
As the season’s gone on Missouri has received more production from younger players such as Sparks and Acy. Toward the beginning of the season, Acy struggled with tackling and misread coverages at times. Now he has five tackles-for-loss on the season with a pair of pass break-ups. Sparks had his first career interception against Vanderbilt on Saturday, the team he originally committed to, and has also been a difference-maker on defense.
“They’ve responded better in the moment of competition better than early on,” Odom said.
Cheadle said both young players have impressed him as the season has gone on, and that as a true freshman it’s easy to have your confidence rattled as you’re adjusting to the college game. He said Sparks is a player who “has all the tools,” while Acy’s play goes side-by-side with his confidence.
“He’s gaining confidence as the season’s gone on,” Cheadle said. “He’s always been that kind of player, that’s what we expected of him. Once he got his confidence back you can play how you know you can play.”
Linebacker Brandon Lee said that while the unit has improved as a whole during the season, the coaches never changed anything and kept calling the same plays from September through November.
He said the secondary is reflective of the rest of the team, where players learned their roles and made adjustments while they were trying to turn the season around.
“It’s not magic,” he said. “They just buckled down.”