Campus Corner

Mizzou spring review: Safeties hope to lead defense back to respectability

Missouri Tigers safeties Thomas Wilson (8) and Anthony Sherrils (22) tackled Vanderbilt wide receiver Darrius Sims during the second quarter of the college football game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Columbia on Faurot Field in Memorial Stadium.
Missouri Tigers safeties Thomas Wilson (8) and Anthony Sherrils (22) tackled Vanderbilt wide receiver Darrius Sims during the second quarter of the college football game on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Columbia on Faurot Field in Memorial Stadium. along@kcstar.com

The numbers paint a grisly picture for Missouri’s defense last season.

The Tigers allowed 31.5 points per game, which was the most since 2000.

First-year coach Barry Odom’s defense was gashed for 479.7 yards per game last season, which was the most since 1991.

The 232.8 rushing yards per game Mizzou allowed were the most since 1994 and the 45 touchdowns allowed in 12 games tied for the most per game since 2000.

It was unacceptable for a defense that had become accustomed to success.

The Tigers’ defense helped form the backbone of the program’s successful transition from the Big 12 into the SEC after some hiccups that first season in 2012.

Mizzou allowed only 20.3 points per game from 2013-15, a span that included back-to-back appearances in the SEC championship game and a top-20 average finish nationally in scoring defense.

A veteran safety group that includes seniors Anthony Sherrils and Thomas Wilson along with returning starters Cam Hilton and Ronnell Perkins is taking some weight upon its shoulders to turn around the defense’s fortunes in Odom’s second season.

“We’re going to kill,” Sherrils said.

He also offered an intriguing explanation for last season’s struggles.

“It’s really all about chemistry, knowing the defense and knowing where the ball is going to hit with everybody being on the same page,” Sherrils said. “Last year, we weren’t on the same page, so a lot of times the ball was hitting places we didn’t think it would hit. Being able to anticipate, ‘OK, the ball’s hitting there, so I need to be in this gap,’ it’s much different.”

Missouri’s struggles to master the gap-control defense Odom and defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross tried to install led to frustration throughout the fan base and, more importantly, throughout the roster.

There’s more commitment from the Tigers and more unity, especially with co-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters overseeing the entire secondary now after coaching safeties the last two seasons, as the calendar churns toward the 2017 season-opener Sept. 2 against Missouri State.

“We have to get together as a group and we’re more engaged as a unit now,” sophomore cornerback DeMarkus Acy said. “We’re closer now. I feel like last year we weren’t as close as we should have been. Now, the secondary is all in one room and we communicate better. We all just know each other.”

SAFETIES (9)

Projected depth (string): (1) Ronnell Perkins, sophomore; Cam Hilton, junior; (2) Anthony Sherrils, senior; Thomas Wilson, senior; (3) Anthony Hines, senior; Kaleb Prewett, junior.

Potential impact additions: Joshuah Bledsoe, freshman; Tyree Gillespie, freshman; Jordan Ulmer, freshman.

Analysis: Perkins and Hilton showed up as playmakers in flashes last season, unseating Sherrils and Wilson atop the depth chart. Both remain young defensive players with only one season of experience — Hilton played wide receiver as a freshman — but that experience should help both take giant steps in 2017.

It’s worth noting that Wilson, who finished third on the Tigers with 58 tackles last season, and the speedy Sherrils (53 tackles), a Hogan Prep graduate, remained more productive overall than Hilton (49 tackles) and Perkins (43 tackles).

With Mizzou ditching the ill-fated read-and-react scheme it tried to install last season in favor of a defense similar to 2015’s dominant unit, don’t be surprised if Sherrils, in particular, thrives once again. He was the team’s third-leading tackler two seasons ago with 64 tackles.

Prewett — a Blue Springs graduate and transfer from Kansas State, who started eight games and totaled 49 tackles in 2015 — easily could push his way up the depth chart, but it looks like he’ll be the Tigers’ starting nickelback and might see the bulk of his time in the slot as a third safety, especially in passing situations.

It will be interesting to watch how Bledsoe, Gillespie and Ulmer perform during fall camp and if any of them can force their way into the rotation on the back end. If not, each player could bring special teams value as a true freshman.

Overall grade: B-. There is a ton of depth at the position, but none have proven to be elite safeties yet. Perkins is a thumper with a knack for the ball, posting 3 1/2 tackles for loss and three pass breakups last season. Hilton is a gifted athlete with fantastic instincts, but he missed a lot of tackles — possibly related to shoulder injury that required postseason surgery. Sherrils is the most experienced and probably the fastest player of the bunch, but that’s never completely translated into game-changing ability. Perhaps his senior season is the year Sherrils becomes transcendent.

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TIGHT ENDS | Kendall Blanton polishes mental game, aims to emerge as a star

WIDE RECEIVERS | Receivers eye consistency to bolster offense

OFFENSIVE LINE | Incoming class, including Pompey Coleman, bolsters MU’s offensive line

Tod Palmer: 816-234-4389, @todpalmer

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