Carnell, Charleston make the most of spring opportunities
When Missouri took the field for its spring football game on March 19, Eli Drinkwitz said the defenses were “playing with one hand behind their back.” That was by design. Defensive players weren’t allowed to contact the quarterbacks, and with Blake Baker still only about a month into his tenure as defensive coordinator, Drinkwitz banned blitzes and didn’t allow the defenses to disguise coverages.
The format made life particularly difficult on the secondary, which couldn’t count on quick pressure from a blitz or try to trick the opposing passer. Still, a couple Tiger players stood out in the back end of the defense.
Redshirt freshman Daylan Carnell and Clemson transfer Joseph Charleston combined to record the game’s three takeaways. Carnell picked off quarterback Tyler Macon twice. He returned the first of those interceptions for a touchdown, and the second one sealed the win for his team. Charleston intercepted Brady Cook in the end zone and also recorded six tackles, tied for the most by any defensive player.
If the production from Charleston and Carnell proves to be more than a blip, they would provide welcome depth to a defensive backfield that has seen more than its fair share of injuries.
The two started for their respective defenses during the spring game in part because of those injuries. All spring, Missouri practiced without four of its five most experienced defensive backs in terms of starts. Cornerback Ennis Rakestraw is still rehabbing from an ACL tear last season. Fellow corner Kris Abrams-Draine and safety Martez Manuel both underwent shoulder surgery after last season and weren’t cleared for contact in time for the spring. Safety Jalani Williams, too, was sidelined by injury.
That meant plenty of reps with the first team for the likes of Carnell and Charleston, and they took advantage.
“It’s been beneficial for me because I’ve gotten a lot of reps at both field and boundary safety,” Charleston said. “Just getting more comfortable in the scheme and stuff like that, especially with a new coach coming in, we haven’t had a whole lot of time to prepare for spring. So it’s been real beneficial for me to come in and get a lot of reps.”
Charleston entered the transfer portal after playing three games last season, having been supplanted by freshman star Andrew Mukuba on the Clemson depth chart. Charleston appeared in 23 games across his first two seasons at Clemson, starting six of them. He said he committed to Missouri in December because of the allure of proving himself in the SEC and because “it felt like they wanted me, and it was a good fit.”
Carnell, meanwhile, spent last season at Missouri, but didn’t play much as a true freshman. Drinkwitz called him “a man without a home” last year, as he spent time playing safety, cornerback and nickelback. Part of the reason for his strong spring, Drinkwitz said, was Carnell sticking at the STAR, or nickel, position.
Carnell said the position will play more like a safety under Baker as opposed to a slot cornerback, like Steve Wilks preferred. He called that “pretty much the only difference” between Baker’s defensive scheme and Wilks’. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Carnell believes the physicality demanded by the position suits him well.
“You’re in line with the run fits, but you’re also a big part of the passing game,” Carnell explained. “I just think I fit well there with my size and my ability. I feel like I’m strong enough to be in the box, and my coverage ability is good enough to play a role in the passing game, also.”
While Carnell was happy with his two-interception day, both he and Drinkwitz said he needs to continue to work on his play defending the run.
“He’s always been a guy that has the ability to get ball disruption,” Drinkwitz said of Carnell. “He seems to find a way to make plays on the ball. … I think the challenge for us with him is that he played the entire game at the apex position, which is a force defender, and he only had one tackle. So we gotta continue to improve his ability to fit in the run scheme, as well as his ability to defend the ball in the air.”
Charleston, on the other hand, was a frequent factor in the running game, as evidenced by his six tackles. While he said he’s gotten reps at both safety positions during spring practices, he manned the boundary safety spot during the spring game (Manuel’s position last season). Drinkwitz said his ability to mix it up in the box and also drop back into coverage makes him ideally suited to play boundary safety.
“He’s a box-fitter in our scheme, and he can roll down and play the box in our one-high structure,” Drinkwitz said. “He can play deep and break on the ball, which he did and showed during the course of that game, which was good. He’s a guy who got a ton of reps because of injuries to other guys during the spring, and he did exactly what you would expect, which is take advantage of your opportunities and grow.”
Drinkwitz has maintained throughout his tenure at Missouri that no starting spots are handed out after spring ball. But after their solid showings over the past month, Carnell and Charleston should enter fall camp as the most productive players at their respective positions since the new defensive staff hit campus. Regardless of who winds up atop the depth chart when Missouri kicks off its season on Sept. 3, having more competitive depth in the secondary can’t be a bad thing.
“Look, the easiest way to keep the spot is to be on the field, don’t let anybody take it, and prevent them from getting those reps and opportunities,” Drinkwitz said. “I think that’s what those guys are trying to do.”