Mizzou camp preview: Linebacker
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 take a look at the Missouri linebackers.
If there’s one player on the Missouri roster who we can predict with certainty will not only start, but play virtually every important snap this season, it’s linebacker Nick Bolton. Bolton’s 103 tackles and two interceptions earned first-team all-SEC honors as a sophomore last season. As long as he’s healthy, he should serve as both the emotional leader and leading tackler on Missouri’s defense this year.
Bolton played weakside linebacker last season while Cale Garrett, when healthy, occupied the middle linebacker spot, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Bolton slide over to the Mike role as a junior. Who will start alongside him is the real question facing this group. The most likely candidate appears to be sophomore Devin Nicholson. The one-time Eastern Michigan commit who flipped to Missouri late in the recruiting cycle impressed the coaching staff enough that he started the final five games as a true freshman last season. Being thrust into the fire came with some growing pains, but Nicholson made some impressive plays, too, finishing the year with 24 tackles. After his first full summer in a college strength and conditioning program, he could be poised for a breakout season.
There will be plenty of competitors to push Nicholson for the second starting spot, including a pair of fourth-year who have patiently waited their turn to start. Since arriving on campus, Aubrey Miller Jr. has flashed promising playmaking ability, but a lack of consistency largely kept him off the field. Last fall, he seemed to turn a corner, with the coaching staff heaping praise on his maturity during fall camp, but a knee injury in the season-opener sidelined him for the rest of the year. Assuming he’s recovered well, the redshirt junior could have a fresh chance at finally cracking the starting lineup with a new position coach. Likewise, senior Jamal Brooks has been a fixture on the two-deep but never started a game during his first three college seasons. Brooks played in all 12 games a year ago and produced when he was on the field. He logged five tackles against Southeast Missouri and racked up seven stops in the season finale against Arkansas, when he split time with Nicholson.
Other contenders for playing time include junior Cameron Wilkins, the only player aside from Bolton and Nicholson with starting experience. Wilkins initially took over for Garrett when Garrett tore his pectoral tendon last season. He started two games and made some solid plays — he served as one of the few bright spots with eight tackles and an interception in the team’s loss at Vanderbilt — but somewhat mysteriously lost his grip on the starting job after that. Redshirt sophomores Chad Bailey and Gerald Nathan Jr. will also look to break through and earn regular playing time in their third seasons in the program. Bailey, a former four-star recruit, has been hampered by a string of injuries since he arrived on campus, so it will be intriguing to finally see what he can do if he remains healthy. And, speaking of players who have battled injury, Jamie Pettway hardly ever practiced and never played after undergoing knee surgery prior to his freshman season, so we have little idea what to expect from him. True freshman Will Norris rounds out the linebacking corps. The Columbia native doesn’t figure to have a great shot at earning meaningful snaps at linebacker during his first season on campus, but with a strong camp could put himself in consideration for a special teams role.
Storyline to watch
While Bolton will, deservedly, continue to generate preseason headlines, we’ll be paying more attention to the battle for the starting spot alongside him and how the hierarchy shapes out beneath him. With D.J. Smith taking over for Vernon Hargreaves as the linebackers coach, there are at least four, maybe five players who could get first-team reps without it coming as a total shock.
It makes sense for Bolton to take over the Mike linebacker position and continue to call the defensive signals. This is really going out on a limb, we know, but he’s going to play virtually every meaningful snap. It’s much more difficult to forecast who will play alongside him. We’ll stick with Nicholson for now because it’s difficult to start as a true freshman and the experience should only benefit him, but look for Miller and Wilkins to take serious runs at unseating him.