Three years ago, Missouri found itself in a similar position after E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder graduated, leaving a gaping hole at cornerback for a defense with something to prove.
In stepped a pair of redshirt freshmen, Aarion Penton and John Gibson, and the defense helped propel the Tigers to a second straight SEC Championship Game appearance.
Now, it’s Penton and Gibson who’ve moved on and the same fears about Mizzou’s lack of experience on the boundary are cropping up when surveying next season’s roster.
If some combination of senior Logan Cheadle and sophomores DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes wind up as productive as Penton and Gibson, those fears will prove to be unfounded.
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“I don’t feel a lot of pressure,” Acy said. “I feel like we’re physically and mentally ready because we have the right guys to do it. We saw what those guys did last year and we saw how hard they worked. It’s mano-for-mano. We feel like we can do the same things, so I don’t feel any pressure to fill those shoes.”
That’s good, because they are big shoes to fill.
Penton, whose 10 career interceptions are tied for seventh in program history, racked up 154 tackles, including eight for a loss, with 41 total passes defended in 51 career games, including 37 starts.
Gibson, who posted 86 career tackles with five interceptions among 19 passes defended, made 16 starts and appeared in 49 career games.
The duo also set a standard for the younger players in the program, one that Acy aims to uphold.
“I’m really hungry this year — working every day, day in and day out,” he said. “I see what Aarion Penton did last year and what the work did for him. I just want to be the next one to be in that line and fill those shoes. That’s what motivates me every day.”
Amid the defense’s struggles last season, chemistry issues cropped up within that unit. Some players were unhappy with a scheme change and others unhappy with their role, but a different vibe was established during spring practice the last few months.
“We’re preaching ‘love your brother’ as our motto,” Acy said. “This offseason, we’ve been all about ‘never let your brother be down’ and just help each other out. We’re all close — and the closer we are, the more we communicate then the better we’ll be all around.”
Project depth (string): (1) DeMarkus Acy, sophomore; Logan Cheadle, senior; (2) Terry Petry, freshman; Christian Holmes, sophomore; (3) Finis Stribling IV, junior; Jerod Alton, redshirt freshman.
Potential impact additions: Terry Petry, freshman; Adam Sparks, freshman.
Analysis: Missouri must replace starting Penton and Gibson, who together appeared in 100 games during the last four seasons and combined for eight interceptions last year. That’s a lot of experience vanishing from the roster with precious few game-day reps to replace it.
Cheadle, a Lee’s Summit West graduate and the lone senior in the bunch, has the most experience. He’s appeared in 32 games, including one start last season, with 25 career tackles.
Last season Cheadle snagged his first career interception among a career-best five passes defended. He started spring practice behind Holmes on the depth chart but wound up starting the Black & Gold Spring Game six weeks later.
Cheadle was slowed by a sprained ankle last season, but he’s eager to make the most of his final season in Columbia. He and Holmes — an Atlanta native, who appeared in 10 games last season primarily on special teams — form a solid rotation.
Acy appears to have locked down a starting job. He appeared in 11 games last season, making one start at LSU and recording three of his six tackles on the seasons. Acy started the spring atop the depth chart and never budged. The Dallas native is a converted safety with high upside as his coverage skills continue to develop.
Alton’s progress will be interesting to monitor. He enrolled late and missed most of training camp last season while ironing out some academic issues. It cost him any chance to make an impact as a true freshman, but he’s a gifted athlete and aims to force his way into the rotation.
Petry (Missouri City, Texas) and Sparks (Baton Rouge, La.) are the kind of long, rangy athletes Mizzou prefers at the cornerback position, so either could rocket up the depth chart with a good summer and fall camp.
Overall grade: C. This grade isn’t a reflection of talent because Missouri has some good athletes at cornerback, but there’s so little experience at the position it could make the Tigers vulnerable on the outside. Only time will tell if Cheadle, Acy and Holmes rise to the occasion once the season kick off Sept. 2 against Missouri State at Memorial Stadium.
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