Mizzou camp preview: Cornerback
It’s been an offseason like no other for the Missouri football program. The Tigers fired four-year head coach Barry Odom following a 6-6 2019 campaign, replacing him with Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz cleaned house on the offensive side of the ball, then just after the team began holding spring practices, the COVID-19 pandemic hit college sports. Missouri had to cancel 12 of its 15 originally scheduled practices, as well as the Black and Gold game, in the spring. While the team was able to return for voluntary strength and conditioning workouts this summer, which have since transitioned to mandatory practices, the Tigers have still only once taken the field in pads under Drinkwitz’s watch.
Fitting with the theme of the year, the calendar for the 2020 season continues to change. Last week, the SEC announced that each team would play a 10-game, conference-only schedule beginning Sept. 26. Tuesday, the league pushed back the start of fall camp as well. Missouri was originally scheduled to begin camp Friday, but instead will hold the first of 25 camp practices on Aug. 17.
Despite the constantly-shifting schedule, PowerMizzou is continuing to preview Missouri's 2020 season one position group at a time. Today, we examine the Tiger cornerbacks.
Missouri’s secondary was perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the team in 2019, but the Tigers will face the challenge of replacing their two most experienced cornerbacks during the offseason. Three-year starter DeMarkus Acy graduated and redshirt senior Christian Holmes transferred to Oklahoma State. That leaves just one player who played more than a quarter of the team's defensive snaps in 2019: junior Jarvis Ware. Ware started 10 games a season ago, and while his proclivity for penalties and constant yapping at opponents rubbed some Tiger fans the wrong way, his results weren’t bad. Ware recorded 33 tackles and broke up four passes on the season. He struggled a bit against Georgia and Florida, the better passing offenses on Missouri’s schedule, and while there are still questions about how he will hold up when lining up opposite the opponent’s best wideout, he seems like a safe bet to start this season.
Senior Adam Sparks is the only other corner with starting experience, although it’s been more than two years since he found himself in the starting lineup. Sparks burst onto the scene as a true freshman in 2017, starting the final eight games of the season, but he lost his starting spot to Holmes in 2018. He then missed the final five games of that season due to injury and slipped to fourth in the cornerback hierarchy last season. Sparks still saw action in 11 games and might have been the best of the bunch in run support, but it’s fair to wonder how he might hold up in a return to being an every-down starter.
Several young players in the cornerback room could push for starting spots during camp. Even if they don’t unseat Sparks or Ware, one or two will be counted on to play regular snaps when Missouri brings more defensive backs onto the field in nickel and dime packages. Sophomore Chris Shearin has the most experience of the group. Shearin played in 11 of 12 games as a true freshman in 2019. While most of that action came on special teams, he did play some meaningful snaps at corner in the final few games when Missouri had been thinned out by injury. Fellow second-year player Ishmael Burdine had a strange first year on campus, in which he was declared out for the season due to a shoulder injury suffered during fall camp, then suddenly entered the game and played 35 snaps during Misouri’s season finale at Arkansas. Burdine looked good in the limited action, so it will be interesting to see what he can do now that he’s healthy. Chris Mills is another player who has been limited by injuries; after redshirting his first season on campus, Mills missed nearly all of last season due to a knee injury.
The group will be bolstered by a pair of true freshmen who could actually have a chance at earning immediate playing time. The bigger name among the duo will be Ennis Rakestraw, who sent Drinkwitz into a viral celebration when he picked Missouri over Alabama and Texas on National Signing Day. There has already been a bit of buzz about Rakestraw’s performance during non-contact workouts over the summer, but it would probably be unfair to expect him to come in and start right away. Rakestraw will be joined by Florida product Jaylon Carlies.
Storyline to watch
Which of the unproven first- and second-year players can carve out a role? Even if Ware and Sparks hold onto the two starting positions, Missouri generally uses four cornerbacks during a game, so the opportunity will be there for Shearin, Burdine and, yes, possibly Rakestraw to earn regular snaps with a strong camp performance.
While it’s fair to wonder how he will fare in Acy’s role as Missouri’s top corner, it would come as a real surprise if Ware doesn’t start this season. Sparks will have a regular role, but whether that’s as the other starting corner or as nickelback remains to be seen. We’re high on both Shearin and Burdine and believe both exit camp in the regular rotation, and we wouldn’t be surprised if one beats out Sparks for a starting spot.