Mizzou Football Midseason Review: Defense & Special Teams
We are through six weeks of the 2022 football season and the Tigers are headed toward uncharted territory, where it's unknown if there has truly been a progression or regression. Mizzou has had three consecutive .500 regular seasons and at this point in the season is 2-4, although one could argue it probably should be no worse than 4-2 and could even be 5-1 with a win over the No. 1 team in the country.
With 50% of the schedule in the books for Missouri, we’ll use the bye week to look at the good and bad parts of the first half and give some suggestions of what it could do in the second half of the season.
We've already reviewed the offense, so now it's time to review the defense and special teams.
Record ATS: 4-2
Total defense: 329.8 yards per game (30th in the FBS)
Rushing defense: 138.3 yards per game (61st)
Passing defense: 191.5 yards per game (27th)
Scoring defense: 24.67 (57th)
1.) Ty'Ron Hopper is everything that Mizzou thought he'd be
The player battling with wide receiver Dominic Lovett for the best player on the team is linebacker Ty'Ron Hopper. Hopper caught the eyes of Missouri's coaching staff after recording 12 tackles and two tackles for loss against Mizzou in week 11 of the 2021 season while he was still a member of the Florida Gators.
In fact, Hopper has made Mizzou's Survivor Series list (a ranking system of the five best Tigers after their latest game) four times. If we break that down statistically, Hopper has 37 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, three pass deflections, two sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. He leads the Southeastern Conference in solo tackles with 33, and he's recorded at least five tackles in each game this season. He's capable of playing the run and the pass and can almost always be relied upon to make a big hit every game.
Hopper's impact has been felt since week one and he has been the best player on a revamped defense that has multiple potential NFL players.
2.) The secondary is the most consistent level of the defense
It seems like on a week-to-week basis a different level of the defense could be deemed the best level, but the most consistent one is the secondary.
Cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine has moved from playing the cornerback in the slot to playing cornerback on the outside, essentially on an island against the opposing team's best defender. That's a bigger difference than most think it is. In the slot, there's help whether it be from linebackers or a safety. On the outside, you may get help from a safety on deep ball plays, but besides that it's one-on-one. Abrams-Draine has 14 tackles (12 solo) and five pass deflections in five games. His pass deflections rank third in the SEC.
Cornerback Ennis Rakestraw has done well opposite Abrams-Draine and had his best game of the season against Florida with five tackles and two pass deflections in a game that Abrams-Draine missed. He's recorded 17 tackles (14 solo), four pass deflections and an interception.
Safety Jaylon Carlies continues to look more and more like an NFL player as the weeks go on. He leads the team in tackles with 38 (32 solo) and has a sack, a pass deflection and an interception. It's important to note that one of Carlies' biggest strengths this season was one of his biggest weaknesses last season and that's tackling. Carlies has recorded five tackles or more in five of six games.
Clemson transfer safety Joseph Charleston has been outstanding as the other deep safety with Carlies. Charleston feels like a swiss army knife on this defense. He can play deep or play closer to the box. He can defend the pass and he's not afraid to tackle or even be on the receiving end of a couple of collisions with opponents bigger than him to make the stop. He's racked up 34 tackles, a tackle for loss and an interception returned for a touchdown.
The STAR position has been a success due to the play of Martez Manuel and Daylan Carnell. This is the ideal role for both players. Due to the talent in the rest of the secondary, these two can now help set the edge and slow down the run which proved to be a massive issue last season. They're also athletic enough to guard tight ends.
Manuel is usually where he is supposed to be when he is supposed to be there and has had a decent season so far with 24 tackles (19 solo), 5.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass deflection and a forced fumble.
Carnell has seen far fewer snaps but has been an impact player when he steps on the field. If there was ever concern about the ability of Mizzou to replace Manuel after this season that concern should be largely dissipated by now. Carnell has 12 tackles (eight solo), two tackles for loss, a pass deflection, an interception and a fumble recovery.
3.) The defense is not the reason Mizzou is 2-4
In almost every game this season you could tell Missouri's defense has gotten better, and ff anything, the defense will show it has heart and fight back.
Even when it gave up 40 points to Kansas State in week two, it kept Missouri in the game throughout the third quarter despite four interceptions on four straight possessions by Missouri quarterbacks Brady Cook and Jack Abraham.
In week four, it allowed 14 points to Auburn in the first quarter and didn't allow another score until overtime. Considering kicker Harrison Mevis probably should've hit the game-winning field goal from 26-yards away at the end of regulation, then it wouldn't have given up three points in overtime. This same defense rebounded and held the reigning national champions to 12 points through three and a half quarters. It did run out of gas, but most people considered that game to be a blowout in Georgia's favor entering the game and the reason it wasn't was because of the defense. Lastly, in week six against Florida it really only gave up 14 of 24 points. Seven points came off of a telegraphed interception returned for a touchdown and three points came off of a 48-yard punt return that put Florida at Missouri's 24-yard line. The defense gave up two straight touchdowns on its second and third defensive drives of the second half but rebounded with an interception to give its offense the ball back with a little less than three minutes in regulation to tie or take the lead.
This defense isn't perfect and no one should expect it to be, but the reason Missouri isn't a top 25 team has nothing to do with this side of the ball.
1.) Special Teams (mostly punt unit) have been inconsistent
If you're making a punting change in week three that means the starting punter got hurt or he is not doing a good job. For Sean Koetting, it was the latter. Through two and half games he punted the ball 13 times for an average of 40.4 yards per punt. He had four punts land inside the 20 and four punts reach over 50 yards. That wasn't good enough for Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz who decided to replace Koetting with Jack Stonehouse during the game versus Abilene Christian in week three.
In that game, Stonehouse had a pair of punts for an average of 50 yards per punt. Stonehouse followed that game up with a masterclass performance against Auburn when he punted the ball eight times for an average of 48 yards per punt with four of them landing inside Auburn's 20-yard line and three of them being longer than 50 yards.
He had another solid outing in week five versus Georgia with five punts for an average of 38.5 yards per punt which isn't great, but he did land three punts inside the Bulldogs' 20-yard line. Stonehouse struggled against Florida though with four punts for an average of 39.8 yards per punt with one punt landing inside Florida's 20-yard line.
All of this to say, Stonehouse may be an upgrade over Koetting but he should've been the starter coming out of camp anyway. Stonehouse probably isn't in danger of losing the spot, but Drinkwitz wasn't too thrilled with Stonehouse's performance in week six, partially because one of his 40-yard punts was returned 48 yards. Some of that is Stonehouse not getting enough hang time and some of that is the punt coverage unit not being able to make plays. Remember, the punt coverage unit gave up a punt return touchdown to Kansas State.
Overall, Stonehouse has punted 18 times for 44.3 yards with six punts inside the 20 yards.
Mevis, who was a Preseason All-SEC first-team, struggled in week three with two missed field goals versus Abilene Christian which marked the first time in his career he missed multiple field goals in a game. In week four, he missed the aforementioned chip-shot field goal that could've won the game against Auburn. He did however go 5 of 5 (22, 41, 49, 52 and 56) versus Georgia.
Overall, Mevis is still fine. He missed a chip shot that he normally makes, missed a 39-yard field goal versus Abilene Christian (didn't have an effect on the game) and a 52-yard field goal that same game which he made up for later in the game with a made 52-yard field goal.
Mevis is 11 of 14 on field goals and 16 of 16 on PATs.
Besides week four, special teams haven't cost the team many games. The problem is coming into the season special teams were supposed to be the thing that gave Missouri the advantage in most games. This season, it's been feeling like the special teams are bordering neutral and disadvantaged.
2.) Defense has to be perfect to win
It's not fair, but everything can be nitpicked. The bad part about this defense is that they have to play perfectly to win games. They won't be and no one can expect them to be. So, in hindsight, that's still a positive. If the worst thing to say about someone or something is that they're not perfect then that probably means they're really good and Mizzou's defense is really good.
It did have some hiccups. It started slowly against Kansas State and gave up a couple of touchdowns on its first couple of defensive possessions and it did a similar thing against Auburn letting them get to a 14-point lead. Early on it felt like the Tigers had to get punched in the mouth and taste its own blood offensively and defensively to respond.
The caveat is against Auburn, Missouri threw an interception that set them up with decent field position in Mizzou territory which led to a touchdown. Against Florida, the aforementioned 48-yard punt return set the Gators up with a short field to get points.
A season ago, Missouri was giving up 418 yards per game and was the SEC's second-worst defense, and now it's the SEC's fifth-best defense and 30th-best in the FBS.
Keys to a better second half
Realistically, there's not too much more that they could do. The defense is doing well, but they have to continue to stay focused and do more of what they did against Georgia early on. Forcing turnovers, punts and winning the field position battle. It can't help if by the end of the first quarter the team is down double digits due to the offense or special teams it just has to continue to fight.