Mizzou camp preview: Defensive end
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.
Despite all the uncertainty that continues to swirl around the 2020 season, the SEC took a step toward having a college football season on Thursday. The league announced that each team would play a 10-game, conference-only schedule beginning Sept. 26. Missouri and the rest of the league are still set to start call camp practices Aug. 7. So, each day between now and then, PowerMizzou is previewing the Tiger roster one position group at a time, breaking down the depth chart and providing the storylines to watch for what should be the most important fall camp in recent memory. Today, we transition to perhaps the biggest question mark on the defensive side of the ball: defensive end.
For the third offseason in a row, Missouri’s defense enters camp with the same glaring question mark: Who can pressure opposing quarterbacks? The Tigers got just four sacks from their defensive ends, combined, last season. The defense did almost everything else well, but at some point the unit needs to find some edge rushers capable of winning one-on-one matchups.
The hope of an improved pass rush figures to be based more on returning defensive ends developing rather than newcomers taking over. The three players who played the most snaps at defensive end last season will all be back in 2020: seniors Chris Turner and Tre Williams and junior Jatorian Hansford. Turner has started 25 games in a row, the longest streak of anyone on the Missouri roster, and while he’s rarely caught out of position, he’s recorded just 4.5 sacks in his three-year career. Williams spent nearly the entire 2019 offseason away from the team as a result of an arrest, but still started eight games a season ago. The Columbia native has flashed talent but, like Turner, hasn’t produced consistently, recording just 3.5 sacks across the past two years. Hansford saw the field as a true freshman in 2018 and started four games last year but is still looking for his first career sack. He’s recorded 16 tackles, 3.5 for loss, during his first two college seasons.
Aside from the three players mentioned above, Missouri only has two players on its roster who have recorded a tackle while playing defensive end: Akial Byers and Isaiah McGuire. We expect both to line up at defensive tackle this season. Clearly, the staff needs at least one more player to step up and provide some depth on the edge, but who fills that role remains to be seen.
Neither Sci Martin nor Z’Core Brooks saw meaningful snaps during their first seasons at Missouri last year. Martin, a former four-star recruit who chose LSU out of high school, then spent two seasons at junior college before coming to Missouri, certainly has the talent to contribute. Brooks redshirted his first college season. They will be joined by incoming freshman Johnny Walker, who out of sheer necessity should have a chance to play right away.
Given the lack of proven options on the edge, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if defensive line coach Brick Haley trains a few players to play both defensive tackle and end. McGuire and junior college transfer Ben Key seem like potential candidates to do so. As mentioned in yesterday’s defensive tackle breakdown, McGuire appeared in six games and logged four tackles as a true freshman. Key recorded 40 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, at East Los Angeles junior college in 2019.
Storyline to watch
Quite simply, is there any reason to believe the pass rush should be better than it has been the past couple seasons? We won’t know for sure until the Tigers line up against a real opponent, but talking to players and coaches should give us a preliminary indication of whether any of the returners has made a big offseason leap.
We expect Turner to start as long as he’s healthy with Williams and Hansford splitting reps opposite him. Look for Key to spend some time at defensive end as well. He may need some time to adjust to Missouri’s scheme, but if he can win one-on-one pass-rushing matchups, the staff should be able to find some sort of role for him, possibly on third downs.