Fall camp preview: Safety
As Missouri prepares to kick off fall camp practices for its second season under head coach Eli Drinkwitz, a sense of normalcy has returned. Drinkwitz's debut season got delayed and de-railed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but after the Tigers managed to go 5-5 against an all-SEC schedule, fans are optimistic to see what he can do in year two.
Every day over the past couple weeks, we have been breaking down the Missouri roster one position group at a time. (If you've missed any of the previous articles, they can be found at the bottom of this one.) Today, we wrap up our position preview series by taking a look at the Tiger safeties.
After seizing the starting strong safety job a year ago and playing well in 2020, Martez Manuel seems to be a near lock to start again this season. The Columbia native finished the year third on the Missouri defense in tackles with 64 and second in tackles for loss with seven. He also broke up five passes and forced a fumble, plus has established himself as one of the emotional leaders of the defense. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks will likely look to Manuel to help lead the team's new-look secondary.
The deep safety spot, where Missouri will have to replace Tyree Gillespie, who started each of the past two seasons, will be much more up for grabs. Last season, when Gillespie missed some time due to injury, Jalani Williams took his spot. The former four-star recruit out of St. Louis recorded 14 tackles across seven games and graded out well according to Pro Football Focus, but he has battled some injuries of his own, most recently missing all of spring practices after undergoing surgery. During his absence, the Missouri staff shifted second-year player Jaylon Carlies from cornerback to safety and seemed to like what it saw, as he appeared to take the majority of first-team reps. It looks like Williams and Carlies will have a truly wide-open competition for the starting spot during fall camp.
The most interesting storyline among the Missouri safeties comes in the form of Shawn Robinson. You may remember that the TCU transfer started last season at quarterback for the Tigers before losing his job to Connor Bazelak. He then transitioned to playing defense and special teams. During Missouri's regular-season finale, a rash of injuries forced him to play 31 snaps at safety, and he performed well, recording five tackles, an interception and a pass break-up. Afterward, Robinson committed to playing the defensive side of the ball, but even after going through spring practices, he's sure to face a pretty steep learning curve. It's tough to project how he could factor into the defense this season. Common sense says it would be difficult for him to beat out the players listed above, but Drinkwitz has routinely raved about his work ethic, so we're not going to say it's impossible he finds a way into a consistent role.
The other players who will compete with Robinson for a spot in the regular rotation include Stacy Brown. The third-year player looks the part of an SEC safety physically but has yet to see it translate to on-field success. Last season, he served as Manuel's backup and played sparingly. It's possible he could transition to the deep safety spot in search of more playing time this year. Tyler Jones, too, didn't see a lot of action on defense as a true freshman last season. Incoming freshman Tyler Hibbler and fifth-year senior Mason Pack round out the position group. Hibbler put up impressive numbers as a senior for Trinity Catholic last season, recording 68 tackles and four sacks in just five games, but it seems unlikely he plays on more than just special teams during his first season on a college campus. Pack, too, will likely just be a special-teamer. The former walk-on did start one game at safety last season, but that was largely due to injury and COVID-19 contact tracing.
Camp Storyline to Watch
There will be a couple interesting stories to monitor among the safety group. The most meaningful will be how badly the group misses Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe, but it will probably be impossible to glean a real answer until the team starts playing games. In the meantime, we'll certainly monitor the battle to start at deep safety as well as what Robinson's role looks like.
As long as he's healthy, we expect Manuel to start and rarely come off the field. We wouldn't be surprised if either Carlies or Williams wins the other safety spot, but we'll give Carlies the slight edge for now. The coaching staff spoke highly of Carlies during spring ball, and he showed last season when he switched from wide receiver to cornerback and actually earned playing time that he has a knack for picking up new positions.