Ronnell Perkins thought he was in trouble when he received the call to come to defensive coordinator Ryan Walters' office. There was just one spring practice left before Missouri’s spring break, and Perkins figured the worst as he walked into the meeting.
But linebackers coach Brian Odom was in Walters’ office, too — which was curious, because Perkins was a safety.
Walters told Perkins, a junior from St. Louis, he wanted him to become a nickel linebacker. The position requires someone who possesses quickness to play in coverage and rush into the backfield while primarily playing on third downs, when offenses are more often looking to pass.
“He does have the ability to help us in a number of different ways,” Mizzou head coach Barry Odom said. “You find guys who can blitz and get to the quarterback. He’s got the ability to do that.”
Perkins took the field for the first third down of Missouri’s spring football game on Saturday at Memorial Stadium. He only recorded two tackles, but this was a glorified practice that included basic play-calls for both sides, which meant there was less blitzing than what the linebackers will likely do in real game situations.
Perkins began the spring as Missouri’s No. 1 strong safety, but on Saturday, sophomore Joshuah Bledsoe started at that spot. Bledsoe moved from safety to linebacker a season ago, and now he’s back in the secondary — which means he has enough experience at both spots to help Perkins with the transition. Nickel linebacker and strong safety are “kind of like the same things,” Bledsoe said, but linebackers have to focus more on potential running plays.
In his first few weeks at linebacker, Perkins has instinctively dropped back in pass coverage, and he has struggled against play-action plays. He is 6 feet tall and weighs 200 pounds, so he’s undersized for his new position, but linebacker Terez Hall said Perkins has the speed to beat offensive linemen to the spot the lineman wants to go. And thanks to a deep Missouri defensive line that will sometimes line up four men weighing more than 300 pounds each, Perkins thinks he can hide behind bigger bodies now that he’ll play closer to the line of scrimmage.
“He’s got the ability to cover people, and he’s got the ability to fill in gaps,” Hall said of Perkins. “And he’s a pretty hard blitzer.”
When he played safety, Perkins sometimes struggled to guard speedy receivers. After Saturday’s game, he turned to and looked over at slot receiver Jonathon Johnson and said “running with this guy is something else.”
Perkins had been a linebacker until his junior year of high school, when his coach decided that Perkins did not have the size to play linebacker at the college level. Now Perkins will have an opportunity to prove his old coach was wrong, and that the meeting in Walters’ office was the beginning of something good.