Missouri didn’t play a true nickelback Saturday at West Virginia, but change might be coming.
Consistently in camp, the Tigers slid the strong-side linebacker — senior Donavin Newsom or sophomore Terez Hall — out to the slot in lieu of a fifth defensive back.
The Mountaineers exposed the unique alignment during a 26-11 season-opening victory.
Slot receiver Daikiel Shorts led all pass-catchers with eight receptions for 131 yards, repeatedly burning Mizzou’s linebackers.
West Virginia ran 53 of its 85 offensive plays with a linebacker as the nickel and racked up 347 yards, a robust 6.6-yard average, according to David Morrison’s snap-count blog.
The Mountaineers completed 20 of 28 passes for 197 yards with an interception in those situations and were only 3 of 7 for 56 yards passing against all other sets.
West Virginia also totaled 150 yards in 25 carries with a touchdown against Mizzou’s “nickel” look.
“From a gameplan standpoint, that was part of it going in,” first-year Tigers coach Barry Odom said of the alignment. “We didn’t match those correctly a couple times. I like our linebackers and like our scheme, but we’ve got to be better at what we’re doing. There will be, as we continue to grow, times that we play more of a five-defensive back system.”
During the SEC teleconference on Wednesday, Odom said MU has practiced a more traditional nickel coverage extensively this week with sophomore safety Greg Taylor, a transfer from Hinds Community College in Mississippi, possibly in line for more action at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Eastern Michigan at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.
“Greg Taylor has stepped in there and done a really nice job,” Odom said.
Using Taylor allows Missouri to maintain continuity on the back end, keeping free safety Thomas Wilson and strong safety Anthony Sherrils paired high.
Another option is to move Wilson, who was the Tigers’ starting nickelback last season, or Sherrils into the slot and bringing on sophomore Cam Hilton or redshirt freshman Ronnell Perkins deep.
“There’s a combination there that we’re working and feel pretty good about schematically where we are going into this week,” Odom said.
Newsom played in coverage some last season, but defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said West Virginia’s ceaseless vertical routes took a toll.
Newsom and Hall, who fared better in coverage, will still have some coverage responsibilities. It’s inescapable.
“That’s not something we plan to do with him all game,” Cross said, “but if we ask him to do it for a couple plays, he’s got to get it done for us, because we’ve practiced it. … We’re just not real deep on the backend, so it’s hard to move a guy when you're trying to build some depth there as well.”
Senior linebacker Michael Scherer was quick to point that Newsom probably took too much heat for his performance.
“I feel bad for him,” Scherer said, “because I see the stuff that was said that’s just not true at all. He was put in a very tough position, especially when they start having the running success that they had. For him to read the run and they’re throwing a play-action pass to a guy right behind him real quick, that’s tough. Some of the stuff that was put on him is also not his responsibility. People watched the game and say, ‘Oh, he’s around that play and he’s chasing the guy,’ but maybe he’s trying to make up for something.”
More tempo talk
Be sure to check out my story about the breakneck tempo Missouri played with at West Virginia, why it’s been deemed necessary and a belief the Tigers can go even faster.
Odom and Cross were among the voices saying the offense’s tempo didn’t have a negative impact on the defense, but Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin injected a voice of reason.
“As long as you’re making first downs, tempo’s great,” Sumlin said. “When you’re not, you’re giving the ball right back to the other team and really pressing your defense into a lot of action.”
Missouri didn’t have a drive longer than 1 minute, 45 seconds on offense until midway through the second quarter and the longest of its first 11 drives (not including the 9-second Hail Mary “drive” to end the first half) lasted 2:42.
It wears a defense out when West Virginia mounts five drives of at 2:19 during that same span and there’s time for recovery.
Perhaps more importantly, the short offensive series allow precious little time for the Tigers’ defense to make adjustment to what the Mountaineers are doing.
“We’ve been as fast a team as there has been in the country, but we’ve had to slow down with some defensive issues,” Sumlin said. “I think Saturday you saw us change some paces a couple different times.”
The Aggies even huddled up “for the first time in five years” at times to give the defense a break.
“(Tempo) can be a great thing, but, if you’re not making first downs, it can be a detriment,” Sumlin said.
Mizzou needs to strike the right balance moving forward.