Position Reset: Defensive end
The second Missouri football season of the Eli Drinkwitz era has come and gone. The Tigers started the 2021 campaign slow, losing early swing games at Kentucky and Boston College and getting blown out by Tennessee, but then rallied late to win six games and attain bowl eligibility. After falling to Army on the final play of the Armed Forces Bowl, Mizzou finished the season 6-7.
Now, it's time to take stock of the roster. Missouri, like virtually every other team, has already seen several players enter the transfer portal since the season ended. More attrition is expected. In this series, we'll go position by position to break down which players are expected to return and where the team could stand to add a difference-maker. Today, we take a look at the Tiger defensive ends, which will have a new position coach but both starters back in 2022.
There was quite a bit of optimism around Missouri's defensive line, and particularly its defensive ends, prior to the 2021 season. Trajan Jeffcoat had been named to the all-SEC first team in 2020 and Isaiah McGuire and Chris Turner both had starting experience. Early on, however, the group struggled — along with the rest of Missouri's defensive front. Those struggles contributed to the Tigers' porous run defense and inability to generate pressure on opposing passers without blitzing.
As the year progressed, Missouri's defensive ends played better. That improvement coincided with Jeffcoat and McGuire raising their level of play and staying on the field for more snaps as a result. Down the stretch, McGuire might have been Missouri's best player. Thirty of his 55 tackles and six of his 14 tackles for loss came in the Tigers' final four games of the season. Jeffcoat logged 16 of 34 stops and 5.5 of 10 tackles for loss in the last five games.
Early in the season, Turner rotated in for regular snaps, but he suffered a season-ending injury midway through the year. That opened up some more playing time for Jatorian Hansford and Johnny Walker. Walker, a redshirt freshman, logged the first two sacks of his career. Hansford had two tackles and a clutch sack in Missouri's win over Florida but entered the transfer portal following the end of the regular season.
On Jan. 7, Drinkwitz hired former Indiana defensive line coach Kevin Peoples to coach the defensive ends. Al Davis, who took over as defensive line coach following the firing of Jethro Franklin five games into last season, will coach the defensive tackles.
Departing: Chris Turner, Jatorian Hansford
Turner, a fifth-year senior, was the most experienced player on the Missouri defense last season, but he had faded into a reserve role prior to his injury, starting just three games across the past two years. The departures of him and Hansford will make the competition for the two second-string spots wide open.
Returning: Trajan Jeffcoat, Isaiah McGuire, Johnny Walker, Cannon York, Arden Walker, Travion Ford, Ky Montgomery, Jonathan Jones
Jeffcoat and McGuire should provide quality bookends to Missouri's defensive line. They look like the clear-cut favorites to start, but there will be plenty of players vying for playing time alongside them.
Johnny Walker has the frame of an edge rusher, and he flashed his pass-rushing ability at times last season. He'll need to show more consistency against the run during the offseason, though. Arden Walker (no relation) impressed the coaching staff enough to earn playing time early in the season during his first year on campus, but he only ended up playing four games in order to preserve his redshirt. York, a former walk-on, missed quite a bit of time early in the year but got some defensive snaps in each of the team's final seven games. Ford, Montgomery and Jones were all highly-touted members of the 2021 recruiting class but didn't see much playing time a season ago due to injury. Ford had his offseason derailed by foot surgery, while Montgomery and Jones both missed all of last year.
In addition to which players will back up Jeffcoat and McGuire, one other thing to monitor will be whether any of the above players transition to the interior of the defensive line, where Missouri is a bit more short on bodies. Montgomery probably makes the most sense there given his size.
Incoming: Tyrone Hopper, DJ Wesolak
Missouri added to its defensive end room on Monday via the transfer portal. Hopper announced that he will play his seventh and final defensive season with the Tigers. Hopper played some linebacker during his North Carolina career, so he could line up there for Missouri, but the vast majority of his production came as an edge rusher. Hopper missed nearly all of the 2021 season due to injury, but across 2019 and 2020, he recorded 43 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Wesolak, too, provides the coaching staff some flexibility as to where to align him, but given the number of bodies at defensive end, it would come as a bit of a surprise if he's in the regular rotation as a true freshman.
Projected Starters: Jeffcoat, McGuire
Barring injury, this seems like a no-brainer. Both players might even get a bit of preseason all-SEC hype. Missouri typically rotates its defensive linemen a fair amount, however, so there is playing time to be had behind them.
Spring Practice storyline to watch: Which of the second-year players can take the next step? Arden Walker, Ford, Jones and Montgomery generated quite a bit of excitement when they signed with Missouri, but we haven't gotten to see much of them so far, mainly due to injuries. Spring ball should provide a glimpse at each player's skillset and an indication of where they stand in the pecking order.