Mizzou camp preview: Defensive tackle
On Sept. 1, Missouri will kick off the third season in the Eli Drinkwitz era with a home matchup against Louisiana Tech. The entire month before then will be used to prepare for a campaign that feels like it could go a long way toward defining Drinkwitz's Missouri tenure.
Fall camp, the official start of full-time practices, will begin Aug. 1. Each day between now and then, we will get fans set for camp by breaking down the Tiger roster one position at a time. In today's preview, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball by breaking down the interior of the defensive line, where the coaching staff bolstered the roster with a host of newcomers during the offseason.
Missouri lost three of its top four defensive tackles from a season ago in terms of snaps played. Kobie Whiteside and Akial Byers both graduated, while Mekhi Wingo left for LSU after a strong freshman campaign.
As a result, the Tiger coaching staff turned to the transfer portal to restock the position. The most notable addition was former Oklahoma State defensive tackle Jayden Jernigan. Jernigan recorded 22 tackles, including two for loss, for a Cowboy defense last season that ranked fifth nationally against the run and fourth overall. He looks likely to start for Missouri in his final college season.
The frontrunner to start next to Jernigan is likely the one returning player with starting experience, Darius Robinson. Robinson has started eight games across the past two seasons. He's been effective when he's been on the field — he had 21 tackles a season ago — but he's been limited at times by injuries. Missouri will hope Robinson can stay healthy and produce consistently now that he'll be one of the leaders of the defensive line.
Behind Robinson and Jernigan, the competition for regular playing time should be wide open, and there are several contenders for those spots. A few more transfers who should be in the mix to earn them are Josh Landry, Kristian Williams and Ian Matthews. Landry came to Missouri from Baylor, where he played a reserve role, logging 17 tackles across the past two years. Missouri will hope a change of scenery helps get more production out of the former four-star recruit. Williams was the latest addition to the 2022 signing class when he announced his commitment to Missouri in June. In his first season of consistent playing time, Williams logged 14 tackles for Oregon a year ago. Matthews didn't see the field for Auburn in his lone college season before transferring to Missouri. Our guess is he could use another year of development before he plays consistently.
Two familiar faces, Realus George and Daniel Robledo, could compete for spots on the two-deep as well. However, Drinkwitz has said that Robledo will miss at least part of the season due to injury. George, once a fullback who switched to the defensive line and came to Missouri from the junior college ranks, played sparingly a season ago. Like Robledo, Ky Montgomery will have to get healthy before he can contribute on the field. Montgomery, a four-star recruit in the 2021 class, missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and Drinkwitz said at Media Days last week that Montgomery recently underwent another surgical procedure on that knee. He is expected to be healthy by the start of the season, but missing part or all of camp could be difficult to overcome for a player who has not yet tasted a college game.
Lastly, don't forget about Missouri's two true freshmen. At 6-foot-4, 331 pounds, Marquis Gracial already has SEC size, and he showed his ability against high-level competition when he recorded a sack in the Under Armour All-American game. Jalen Marshall might be a bit more raw, but given the lack of proven depth at defensive tackle, both players will at least get a chance to earn regular reps.
Camp Storyline to Watch
Who plays behind Robinson and Jernigan? Defensive tackle is not a position where teams can rely on just two players, so the Tigers need at least a couple of the players behind them to turn into viable options.
Robinson and Jernigan seem like sure things to start, as long as they remain healthy. Behind them, it's anybody's guess. The staff will likely hope at least one of the transfers is ready to play a regular role right away, so we'll pencil Williams and Landry into the backup spots. However, both George and Gracial will see the field, as well.