Mizzou camp preview: Defensive tackle
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 the defensive side of the ball and start at defensive tackle.
The bad news: Missouri lost Jordan Elliott, the anchor of its defensive line in 2019, to the NFL. Elliott was named a first-team all-American by Pro Football Focus and to the all-SEC second team by the AP. The good news: his partner on the interior of the Tigers’ defensive front, Kobie Whiteside, will be back after a breakout junior season.
Whiteside figures to be a near lock to start in 2020. After being limited by injury in 2018, he won the starting job next to Elliott last season and led the Tigers with 7.5 sacks, also contributing 7.5 tackles for loss. The staff will hope he can continue that productivity without Elliott drawing double-teams next to him. There should be an open competition for the starting spot next to Whiteside, but as of now, we’ll give the edge to senior Akial Byers. Byers has the most experience of the group outside of Whiteside, although he’s spent more time at defensive end than defensive tackle. Byers logged 20 tackles in 2018 and 18 stops last season, including 2.5 tackles for loss.
There are a handful of players who could push Byers for the second starting spot or, at a minimum, receive meaningful snaps. Defensive line coach Brick Haley has shown that he likes to have at least four players rotate regularly at defensive tackle. The most experienced player on that list is Markell Utsey. The fifth-year senior played in all 12 games a season ago. While he made a few nice plays, such as a forced fumble against Kentucky, he also drew a few costly personal foul penalties. He finished the season with nine tackles. A pair of true sophomores could be in the running as well. Darius Robinson earned high praise from the coaching staff during his first season on campus and appeared in five games at defensive tackle. Isaiah McGuire also shed his redshirt, appearing in six games, although he spent last season at defensive end. Now that he’s bulked up to 280 pounds, however, he seems a more natural fit at tackle. The staff will hope that at least one of the two will be able to play regular snaps after their first full offseasons in a college program.
Other players to keep an eye on include newcomer Ben Key. The Australia native has only been playing American rules football for a few years, most recently at East Los Angeles junior college. During his National Signing Day press conference, Drinkwitz described him as raw but talented, so he may need some time to adapt to the scheme, but if he shows an ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks, expect Missouri to find a role for him somewhere along the defensive line. Another former junior college transfer who could contribute is Chris Daniels. Daniels began his college career at Texas before spending two seasons at Copiah-Lincoln community college. He arrived at Missouri a bit overweight and thus hardly saw the field last season, but if he’s able to enter his final season of eligibility in better shape, he could add depth on the interior of the line. Incoming freshman Montra Edwards rounds out the group. It wouldn’t come as a surprise if Edwards redshirts his first season on campus, but given the lack of proven players in front of him, it’s not out of the question that he could earn some playing time with a strong camp.
Storyline to watch
The biggest question about this group is whether Whiteside will be able to match or improve his 2019 productivity without Elliott lined up next to him. By mid-season, Elliott had established himself as the type of player opposing offensive coordinators schemed around and constantly double-teamed; this year, Whiteside will be in that role. It will be hard to tell whether he’s up to the task during camp, however, so we’ll go with the development of the two true sophomores as the storyline to watch. Both Robinson and McGuire impressed Haley enough to earn early playing time at positions where doing so isn’t all that common, and if they can take the next step in their development during their second seasons, they should be able to make a real impact.
Barring injury, Whiteside will occupy one starting spot, and we believe Byers will earn the spot next to him, but we’re high on Robinson and think he has a chance to push Byers for that spot. Regardless of who plays the first snap each game, Whiteside, Byers, Robinson and Utsey will comprise the regular rotation.