Cale Garrett enrolled early at Missouri last spring with the hope a few extra months of training would give him a jump start on his freshman year.
As the Tigers’ 2016 season approached, Garrett — a 6-foot-3, 230-pound middle linebacker and Kearney High graduate — felt confident.
Then came the season-opener at West Virginia.
“I thought I had it down and then the West Virginia game, even though I only played like eight plays, really opened my eyes to live speed …,” Garrett said. “As a freshman, I’d go in there scared, trying not to pee my pants or anything like that.”
Slowly, Garrett settled down.
Against Eastern Michigan in his second game and first at Memorial Stadium, Garrett recorded his first career tackle and he went on to start two games — at Florida and against Middle Tennessee — finishing with 47 tackles with six for a loss, an interception and two passes defended.
“I improved a lot — not necessarily on knowledge of the game, but just in experience and settling down and getting those nerves out,” Garrett said. “Just settling down, calming down and not trying to overplay everything. Trusting what I see and then reacting accordingly.”
Now he’s eager for bigger things and hopes to help Mizzou’s defense bounce back after profound struggles last season.
“Everybody on the defense should take that personally because they’re one piece of it,” Garrett said. “It wasn’t just one guy or one scheme or anything. It was all of us together in a combined effort that didn’t get it done, so I think we’ve all taken it upon ourselves to move from that into something we know we can be.”
Garrett started and finished the spring as a second-string linebacker on the Tigers’ depth chart, but he’s going to see his share of reps along with senior Eric Beisel and juniors Brandon Lee and Terez Hall in the middle of the defense.
MIDDLE LINEBACKERS (7)
Project depth (string): (1) Eric Beisel, senior; Brandon Lee, junior; (2) Cale Garrett, sophomore; Jamal Brooks, freshman; (3) Aubrey Miller, freshman; Joey Burkett, senior; (4) Roderick Winters, junior.
Potential impact additions: Jamal Brooks, freshman; Aubrey Miller, freshman.
Analysis: Brooks and Miller are the future, but neither enrolled early and playing linebacker in the SEC isn’t for the faint of heart. Will either be ready to contribute immediately as true freshmen? Time will tell, and it’s possible Miller fits better in the hybrid role because he’s shown some coverage ability on tape.
Beisel played fairly well after stepping into a starting role when Michael Scherer suffered a season-ending knee injury in mid-October, but he was inconsistent. The linebacker formerly known as “Zeus” totaled eight tackles against Kentucky (Oct. 29) and Vanderbilt (No. 12) combined, but he recorded at least eight tackles in three others starts — at South Carolina and Tennessee and against Arkansas.
Beisel has earned the chance to start fall camp atop the depth chart, but he’s got a way to go to prove he’s a worthy heir to Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer on the field. Brandon Lee appears poised to cash in on so much promise this season, but senior Burkett, Garrett and Brooks will be among those angling to siphon off reps.
Overall grade: C-. There’s no obvious difference-making, tackling machine in the middle anymore. That’s the bad news. The good news is there are a lot of feisty competitors who enter 2017 with something to prove.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS/NICKEL (5)
Project depth (string): (1) Terez Hall, junior; (2) Kaleb Prewett, junior; (3) T.J Warren, sophomore; (4) Grant Jones, junior; (5) Tavon Ross, junior.
Potential impact additions: N/A
Analysis: We’re breaking this up into sections because Missouri appears to be moving toward something of a 4-2-5. The base defense remains a 4-3, but the strong-side linebacker acts more effectively is more of a hybrid safety/nickelback these days with the coverage responsibilities foisted upon the position.
Deployment at the position probably will be dictated by the matchups the Tigers face week to week. Donavin Newsom got most of the reps at the position last season, but we might see more of a platoon situation in 2017. Against teams with a strong running game, expect Hall to see a lot of action as a more traditional linebacker with his size (6-2, 225) advantage over Prewett (6-1, 210), a Kansas State transfer.
However, against pass-happy spread teams when Mizzou plays more of its nickel sub-package, the reps are likely to skew toward Prewett. It’s not a bad situation for a defense that needs to be multiple and adaptable week to week. Converted cornerback T.J. Warren manned the position some during fall camp last season, but he spent most of this spring suspended and finds himself buried on the depth chart for now.
Overall grade: B-. Offenses are becoming sophisticated in generating mismatches in the slot, but it sure seems like Missouri has its bases covered with Hall and Prewett. Hall hasn’t developed into a thumper yet, but he’s got the size and athleticism to step in for Newsom, while Prewett’s experience as a starting safety in the Big 12 and coverage skills give him immense value.
QUARTERBACKS | Drew Lock settles in atop quarterback depth chart
RUNNING BACKS | Damarea Crockett sets sights sky high for 2017
WIDE RECEIVERS | Receivers eye consistency to bolster offense
CORNERBACKS | Graduation takes hefty toll on cornerbacks’ experience