University of Missouri

How Mizzou’s defense finally started to force turnovers after years of missed chances

Barry Odom’s defenses at Missouri have not been known for their ability to force takeaways.

Last season, MU players said the team would have ranked among the nation’s best in missed interceptions, if such a statistic existed. Many times, they were in the right place to force a fumble or pick off a pass and yet were unable to come up with the ball.

That has changed this season.

MU currently has five interceptions through four games, which ranks among the nation’s top 25 in that statistical category. The Tigers are on pace to surpass the 10 picks the team had in 2018 and set a new high-water mark in Odom’s fourth year as coach.

Missouri has already returned three interceptions for touchdowns this season to go with a fumble recovery by linebacker Cale Garrett against South Carolina.

“That’s the difference between a good team and a great team or an average team and a good team is being able to make those extra plays and not leave as many out on the field,” Garrett said. “We’re still dropping one here and there but not nearly as many as last year.”

Odom was expecting an uptick in turnovers when he hired David Gibbs to coach MU’s cornerbacks this past offseason, but players credit defensive coordinator Ryan Walters’ scheme as the main reason for their early success in getting the ball back.

“I don’t think we’ve developed better hands,” Odom said.

Garrett, who had a pick-six against Southeast Missouri State, said MU’s zone coverage has given the Tigers’ linebackers betters eyes on the quarterback. Missouri’s defensive line has also brought more pressure than in recent seasons, in turn buying the linebackers more time.

“I think it always starts up front,” Garrett said. “Get a pass to tip, throwing off the timing. Guys are playing more detail-oriented and a lot of guys have become playmakers with the confidence we’re playing with.”

Defensive line coach Brick Haley noted that the true freshmen Odom played early in his MU tenure are now upperclassmen. The conversation is no longer about learning Walters’ scheme, but running it.

Walters has correctly predicted multiple times which play was coming. That’s led to a few of MU’s interceptions. He has tried to disguise his coverages to allow the secondary more time to read an opponent’s play.

Gibbs, meanwhile, has emphasized the takeaway by constantly preaching it as a mindset. He’ll even go into meetings with nothing more than a football to remind his players what they should be worrying about the most.

Walters echoed Haley’s assessment that the Tigers who played under Odom as freshmen are finally starting to see their understanding of the defense pay off.

They know that when it comes to forcing turnovers, they need to make the most of whatever chances they get.

“Guys are experienced and know opportunities don’t come around (all the time) anymore,” Walters said.

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Alex Schiffer has been covering the Missouri Tigers for The Star since October 2017. He came in second place for magazine-length feature writing by the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association in 2018 and graduated from Mizzou in 2017.