Senior Ian Simon is set as Missouri’s starting free safety (or left safety, whatever the case might be). That much is known.
“He is the leader in the secondary,” fellow senior safety Cortland Browning said. “He’s the guy who rallies us, and he’s always going to be that guy. He’s a motivator and will continue to be the leader.”
Simon understands that the mantle of leadership has passed to him.
“I feel like I’ve inherited that role more than anything just because I’m one of the more seasoned guys that is out there,” Simon said. “I feel like a lot of the guys look to me for advice and I feel like a lot of the guys can come talk to me.”
He’s also embracing the role.
“I’m excited about it, most definitely, because this is my senior year, it’s my last go-round and I just want to help these guys be the best that they can be,” Simon said. “That will help the team out.”
The battle for who starts alongside Simon on the back end of the Tigers’ defense will be among the more intriguing ones in camp.
Browning was set to inherit the position from Braylon Webb, a three-year starter who graduated last year, but a Lisfranc injury in his right foot before the SEC Championship Game opened the door for sophomore Anthony Sherrils.
Browning returned from surgery after three months of rehab in early April, but he remained limited at times during spring practice.
As a result, Sherrils, a Hogan Prep graduate and one of the fastest players on MU’s roster, sits atop the depth chart entered camp.
Browning expects to be healthy and able to compete for the starting job, but Sherrils — now two years removed from a scary car accident that left him with bleeding on the brain — is determined to make an impact on defense and not just special teams.
Missouri’s safeties are adjusting to a new defensive coordinator, Barry Odom, and position coach, Ryan Walters, but the transition went well in the spring and should be even smoother in the camp.
“There’s a little learning curve, but I feel like everybody’s getting better and making the right strides that they need to,” Simon said. “Coach Walters seems pretty pleased with us so far.”
The Tigers also have plenty of talented depth at the safety spots with sophomore Thomas Wilson, who appeared in 13 games last season at safety and nickel. He’s a fast-rising prospect and will push Simon for playing time.
Redshirt freshman Tavon Ross tore his ACL during winter conditioning, but Missouri was hopeful he might return in time for camp. He’s currently third on the depth chart behind Simon and Wilson.
MISSOURI ROSTER: SAFETIES
Returning players: Cortland Browning (6-1, 205, SR.), Thomas Wilson (5-10, 190, SO.), Dominic Nelson (6-0, 185, JR.), Brock Bondurant (6-2, 215, JR.), Ian Simon (6-0, 195, SR.), Tavon Ross (6-0, 200, FR.), Anthony Sherrils (6-0, 190, SO.)
Incoming players: Zane Jacoby (6-4, 205, FR.), Cam Hilton (6-0, 180, FR.)
Projected starter: FS Simon, SS Sherrils
Analysis: Simon is a reliable, intelligent player who should seamlessly take over Braylon Webb’s role as the organizing force on the back end of Missouri’s defense. He made a few mistakes last season, but should trust his reads and instincts better after getting a full year as the starter under his belt. Simon is the leader of the bunch, but he can’t afford to be lackadaisical with Thomas Wilson itching to earn more playing time behind him.
At the other safety spot, Sherrils and Browning seemed destined to battle it out for the starting spot throughout camp. Browning has more game experience and obviously has been with the program longer, but Sherrils is one of the more athletic defensive players on the Tigers’ roster. Coach Gary Pinkel won’t hesitate to plug Sherrils in ahead of Browning if he’s the best option, though both are likely to see significant action during the season.