Defensive backfield to feature new faces, philosophy under Wilks
Every day for the past week or so, Ennis Rakestraw has let Jaylon Carlies know he's a traitor. The two second-year players became fast friends after they each enrolled at Missouri last summer and earned playing time at cornerback during the fall. They would crack jokes with one another in the cornerbacks room, Rakestraw said, and they currently live together.
But at some point within the past two weeks, Carlies has made the move from cornerback to deep safety, one of several players in Missouri's secondary trying out a new role under new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. Rakestraw joked that he felt personally betrayed by the position switch.
“I hate that he left me, because we’re roommates at home, so now every time I see him I tell him he’s a traitor,” Rakestraw said with a smile. “... Like we used to be the ones laughing in the meetings, now he done left me.”
No area of Missouri’s team has experienced more turnover since last season ended than the defensive backfield. Former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who coached the safeties on a daily basis, left for the same position at Illinois. Cornerbacks coach David Gibbs left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Central Florida. They were replaced by Wilks, who will coach cornerbacks in addition to coordinating the defense, as well as new defensive backs coach Aaron Fletcher. From a personnel standpoint, the Tigers lost the starting safety duo of Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie to the NFL. The only other player on the current roster to start a game at deep safety, Jalani Williams, will miss all of spring practices with an injury. Two-year starting cornerback Jarvis Ware is out for the spring as well due to a torn ACL.
The result, Wilks said while speaking to reporters via Zoom on Tuesday, is a clean slate for all of Missouri’s defensive backs. Who played in the past — or where those players lined up — will have little to do with how reps are divvied up this spring.
“I think everyone is starting on equal ground,” Wilks said. “You do see some older guys just with an understanding of being in there with having playing time, understanding concepts of the game. But they’re all still learning the system, and we’ve thrown a lot at them.”
Head coach Eli Drinkwitz has stressed that there’s no depth chart during spring practices, but observing bits and pieces of practices over the past two weeks has suggested that several players could be in line to play either new or expanded roles in the secondary in 2021. Carlies is one of them. The Florida native played mostly wide receiver in high school before moving to the defensive backfield when he arrived at Missouri. He played 255 snaps and started two games at cornerback because the Tigers had a need there last season. Now, he’s made the switch to free safety, the position vacated by Gillespie.
Carlies said his latest position change isn’t nearly as drastic as transitioning from one side of the ball to the other. So far, he’s enjoyed playing safety because it allows him to see the entire offense versus just his man. Both Rakestraw and his coaches said he’s adapted well to the new position.
“Great athleticism, long, tall, great ball skills,” Wilks said of Carlies. “He’s making plays on the football. Ability to be able to run sideline to sideline. He’s shown the ability to step up and make tackles, and I like his cover skills, too, because we cover down in the slot. So he has that corner skill ability that he’s transitioning to the safety position.”
Competing alongside Carlies at free safety this spring will be Stacy Brown, who backed up returning starter Martez Manuel at the strong safety spot a year ago, and Shawn Robinson. Robinson, who started the first two games of last season at quarterback before making the switch to safety, has been the subject of more intrigue than anyone else so far this spring. After recording five tackles, a pass break-up and an interception in the second half of Missouri’s season finale against Mississippi State last year, Robinson decided he was all in on sticking with Missouri and playing defense.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot more at the point that I’m at now versus where I was at Mississippi State,” Robinson said. “I kind of was out there just playing, just running to the ball, trying to make plays. But now, I’m really learning the aspects of leverages, eyes and drop-steps and why we run certain things.”
Rakestraw is back to manning his starting cornerback spot after he started all 10 games a year ago. Ishmael Burdine, who made a couple starts and factored into the regular rotation while he was healthy, could be in line for an expanded role, as well.
But the rest of the cornerback room has seen a rotation of fresh faces so far this spring. Sophomore Chris Shearin, the lone player who opted out of last season and returned to Missouri’s roster, has been working at the slot corner position manned by Bledsoe a year ago. Shearin appeared in 11 games as a true freshman in 2019, mostly on special teams. Junior college transfer JaDarrius Perkins has turned some heads during the spring, as well. Perkins, who actually enrolled at Missouri before publicly announcing his commitment to the Tigers in January, has already earned the praise of his head coach.
“You want to talk about a young man who’s got a great work ethic, attention to detail, is doing everything we’re asking him to do, getting reps with the ones, learning a whole new defense, adjusting to different things being thrown at him,” Drinkwitz said Saturday when asked about Perkins. “He’s got the right stuff. He’s really got the right stuff. Got great length, short-area quickness, ball skills. We’re fired up about what he’s going to bring to our defense and the way he’s practicing.”
Wilks’ challenge in the secondary is not just putting new players in new positions, but teaching new principles to the group. Drinkwitz has stressed that schematic implementation will take a back seat to individual development during the spring, but Wilks said he's started to “phase in” some aspects of his philosophy. The main emphasis so far: He wants Missouri’s defensive backs to create more turnovers, and he hopes to accomplish that by playing more zone.
Missouri played almost exclusively press-man coverage under Walters last season. While that can have its advantages, such as making it more difficult for opposing pass-catchers to create separation, Wilks noted that it meant the Tiger defensive backs spent a lot of time facing away from opposing quarterbacks. He’s started to introduce the secondary to more zone coverage over the past couple weeks.
“Those guys have really picked up the zone concepts a lot,” Wilks said. “They played a lot of man last year, which you saw really the limited amount of takeaways because our back was to the ball all the time. Now, with zone eyes, being able to see two to one, going through the route progression, getting the jump on the quarterback, I’ve been very impressed with how quickly they’ve picked those things up.”
Creating more turnovers, in general, has been Wilks’ main message so far, Rakestraw said. His mantra of “Score on D” has become both his Twitter handle and the license plate on his car. Missouri forced just nine turnovers in 10 games last year. Only 31 teams across college football forced fewer, and all of them played eight or fewer games.
Virtually every coach talks about the importance of turnovers. Rakestraw said the unique measure Wilks has implemented so far has been maintaining a chart that records how often each defensive player takes the ball away or performs an action that usually results in a takeaway, like punching the ball out of a ball-carrier’s arms.
“We got us a chart where, like, it’s takeovers, how many times do we punch out the ball, so now everything, now it’s getting documented,” Rakestraw explained. “So you don’t want to see your name on the list of not trying to take the ball away. But that’s what we’re all about this year. He came in with a goal, and he was like, I want to lead the league in takeaways, so we all gotta respect our coach and buy in to what he’s telling us so when we’re all on the same page, we can make it happen.”
Missouri’s defense as a whole, and particularly its secondary, will continue to evolve between now and the season opener on Sept. 4. Wilks, coaching in college for the first time since 2005, admitted the past couple weeks have been like “standing in front of a fire hydrant with the water just gushing out at your face.” There’s still more scheme to implement and more players to add to the mix once the next wave of newcomers arrives in June.
But the turnover among the coaching staff and absence of several stalwart players has created the opportunity for the secondary to start fresh under its new coordinator. Wilks’ challenge is to find the right balance of new — putting new players in new positions and teaching them new techniques — and comfortable. As he acknowledged, the goal is not to out-scheme opponents, but out-play them, and players execute best when they’re not trying to think about what to do all the time.
“This is my approach: To try to minimize the volume and maximize the execution,” Wilks said. “So we’re phasing things in, and as they show to me and prove to us as coaches that they can earn more of the playbook, then we’ll give it to them. Because again, it’s not so much what I want to do, it’s what they’re able to do, and we want to try to do our best job of putting these guys in position to be successful and make plays.”