For Missouri, the secondary is one of the position groups hit hardest by graduation.
The Tigers lose both starting cornerbacks, E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder, off the 2013 team along with free safety Matt White, leaving gaping holes to fill on the back end of the defense.
“There’s such a comfort level when guys have played, specifically at safety but also at corner,” Missouri safeties coach Alex Grinch said.
That put a premium on restocking the cupboard with the incoming recruiting class, which the Tigers seem to have done with a seven-player haul.
Strong safety Braylon Webb, who finished second on the team in tackles last season with 89, returns and will be the leader of the secondary. John Gibson and Aarion Penton, who both have three years of eligibility remaining, saw plenty of spot duty, while Ian Simon and Duron Singleton got work at safety and nickelback.
“Ideally, those guys take the next step and perhaps even that next leap to being the starter,” Grinch said.
Still, he didn’t rule out the possibility that there are game-day reps available for a talented incoming class.
“We tell every guy in the recruiting process to plan on playing, to come in with that mindset,” Grinch said. “If it’s right for you in that position, we’ll go in a different direction with a redshirt. But there’s a lot of guys, certainly athletically, who represent a major upgrade at a lot of positions.”
Missouri had to sweat out signing safety Tavon Ross (6-0, 200), who drew late interest from Georgia and Miami (Fla.), but the Cochran, Ga., native stayed true to his verbal commitment and headlines an impressive group.
“We were concerned, because a lot of people came in on him,” Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel said. “… We knew he was a heckuva player.”
Missouri also signed Lee’s Summit West cornerback Logan Cheadle, who enrolled early and is getting a jump start on his college career.
He’s drawn comparisons to Gaines, which are appropriate, according to Grinch.
“He can move well,” Grinch said. “He’s a talented, talented corner. He absolutely is.”
Junior college cornerback back Kenya Dennis, a native of Raymond, Miss., by way of Hinds Community College, also enrolled early and brings some experience to the secondary. The Tigers also landed two talented prospects from the St. Louis area — Greg Taylor (5-11, 185) from East St. Louis and Raymond Wingo (6-0, 175) from St. Louis University High School. Wingo’s brother, Ronnie, plays for the Buffalo Bills.
Officially, Thomas Wilson (5-11, 185) from Buford, Ga., is listed as an athlete, but he also projects as a player in the secondary, probably at safety.
All three potentially offer position flexibility between cornerback and safety.
“A couple of those guys are going to easily be 200 pounds, so all the sudden they could be a heckuva safety,” Grinch said. “If you could draft a back end, you’d like as many crossover guys as possible just athletically.”
Finally, Finis Stribling IV is a speedy, playmaking corner with a knack for game-changing plays.
“We’re always trying to recruit great athletes at every position, but certainly in the secondary — the back end, the safeties and corners — we’re looking for high-level athletes,” Pinkel said.
Missouri believes it collected a bunch.