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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Let’s take one last look at Missouri’s 2020 season with a glance at the secondary, a group that endured its share of attrition during the season and mixed some of the team’s most seasoned players with some of the least experienced. For now, the biggest question mark for the secondary is the still vacant defensive coordinator position. Ryan Walters is settling into his new job at Illinois, while Eli Drinkwitz looks for his replacement. Walters coached the safeties and for all six of his years at MU worked exclusively with players in the secondary.

In Walters' 4-2-5 scheme, the Tigers played with three safeties on the field on virtually every snap, two traditional deep safeties and a third hybrid safety/outside linebacker closer to the line of scrimmage. In the team’s dime package, the defense typically dropped one of the D-linemen for an extra defensive back. Before we dig into the production stats and the Pro Football Focus grades, let’s review the season snaps. All players listed below played defensive snaps in all 10 regular-season games unless noted in parentheses:

SAFETY

  • Joshuah Bledsoe: 667
  • Martez Manuel: 609
  • Tyree Gillespie: 552 (nine games)
  • Jalani Williams: 133 (seven games)
  • Mason Pack: 50 (two games)
  • Shawn Robinson: 31 (one game)
  • Stacy Brown: 10 (two games)

CORNERBACK

  • Ennis Rakestraw Jr.: 544
  • Ish Burdine: 267 (eight games)
  • J.C. Carlies: 255 (nine games)
  • Jarvis Ware: 239 (seven games)
  • Adam Sparks: 140 (five games)
  • Chris Mills: 51 (four games)
  • Kris Abrams-Draine: 19 (one game)

Right off the bat, it’s obvious this group had issues staying on the field, whether it was injuries (Gillespie, Ware) or COVID-related situations that kept players out of action. The only cornerback who appeared in every game was Rakestraw, whose season snaps more than doubled the snaps for the corner who played the second-most snaps. That’s telling. Among those three corners who saw the most action were two true freshmen (Rakestraw, Carlies) and a redshirt sophomore (Burdine) who had appeared in just one game prior to this season. Ware graded out as the team’s best corner, but his injuries kept him off the field for long stretches. Sparks was the team’s other experienced corner, but he opted out midway through the season and has since entered the NCAA transfer portal.

Now, let’s look at some individual players.

At safety, Bledsoe proved to be the team’s iron man, playing free safety in the base package, a job that put him in deep coverage against certain formations or as a slot cornerback in other coverages against spread looks. As a 6-foot-3, 200-pound safety, Bledsoe was asked to cover smaller, faster receivers in the middle of the field, and while he gave up his share of completions, he also made more plays on the ball than any other defender on the team.

Among MU’s three regular safeties Bledsoe found himself in 1-on-1 coverage situations more than the rest and finished the year with the best coverage grade (66.3) of the three. Opponents targeted Bledsoe 48 times — second-most on the team — for 485 passing yards, the most allowed by any MU defender this season, and four touchdowns, the second-most allowed. He also led the team with six pass breakups, including two of the biggest stops of the year, the game-winning knock-down in the end zone against LSU and the strip in the final seconds against Kentucky. He also notched his first career interception in the season's final game.

Gillespie, playing the boundary safety position, missed the second half of the Georgia game and the entire Mississippi State game with an undisclosed injury that ended his season prematurely. He was the top-graded player of the three core safeties (64.4) and ranked second in the group in coverage (65.4) and tackling (64.4). Gillespie missed 10 tackles —seven coming in his homecoming game at Florida — but gave up just one passing touchdown in coverage. He finished fourth on the team with 46 tackles despite the late-season injury and averaged a career-best 5.1 stops per game. Solid season, but he wasn’t a disruptive force on the back end: Gillespie finished the year with  four breakups but no interceptions and no forced or recovered fumbles.

Manuel had a breakout year and at times looked like a future All-SEC safety. Playing the strong safety/hybrid role, Manuel was the team’s No. 3 tackler with 64, had the safety group’s best tackling grade (68.0) and best pass-rush grade (68.3). In 2019, Mizzou split the strong safety snaps between Ronnell Perkins and Khalil Oliver — and Manuel finished with more tackles than their combined total, more tackles for loss (seven, second-most on the team) and added five breakups and a forced fumble.

Assigned to funnel running plays into the middle of the field, blitz off the edge and cover tight ends, Manuel was second to Nick Bolton in PFF stops — a stop is defined as a tackle on a successful defensive play — while adding six pressures and 2 ½ sacks, the most among all SEC safeties. Only two Power Five safeties had more sacks all season.

The three other safeties who saw spot duty — Williams, Pack and Robinson — produced promising results in small sample sizes. Robinson, the season’s starting quarterback, played the dime position in MU’s six-defensive back package for the entirety of the second half of the Mississippi State game and logged five tackles, an interception and a breakup. He essentially played just 5 percent of the season on defense but finished the year as the team’s top-graded defensive player at any position (90.5) and earned the defense’s top coverage grade (95.1).  

We touched on the attrition issues at cornerback. Ware’s absence was a big blow to the secondary. Among the cornerbacks who saw significant snaps, PFF gave Ware the group’s highest grades for overall defense (63.7), coverage (61.6) and tackling (55.7). In his 239 snaps, Ware allowed just 10 completions on 22 targets for only 129 yards and one touchdown. He also made the biggest defensive play of the season, picking off Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask and returning the INT for a touchdown at Florida. The Tigers need a healthy Ware in 2021 to build on the flashes he’s shown the last two years.

Rakestraw held his own as a true freshman starting in the SEC at one of the game’s most difficult positions to master. He missed eight tackles and was targeted for a team-high 52 passes and allowed a team-high 29 completions, while giving up five touchdown passes. He also deflected a team-high six passes. Only one other SEC cornerback who played in 10 games was targeted more times than Rakestraw — though 13 SEC corners who played 10 games or fewer allowed more completions. Rakestraw ranked second among the team’s corners in defensive grade (63.1) and tackling (55.7), while Carlies had the group’s second-best coverage grade (60.8).

Looking ahead to 2021, the Tigers return every cornerback who played significant snaps while adding five freshmen who project as corners or safeties: Darius Jackson, Davion Sistrunk, Daylan Carnell, Zxaequan “Snoop” Reeves and Tyler Hibbler.

Until Mizzou hires a defensive coordinator it’s unclear if the Tigers will adjust their scheme and/or base package for 2021, but Manuel is sure to command a leading role. Williams, the former four-star recruit from Parkway North, showed promise as Gillespie’s replacement this year, while Pack, a senior walk-on, was rewarded a scholarship effective this year and could push for a role, along with Robinson, who ended the season saying he plans to stay at safety. Brown competed with Manuel for a starting role and could figure into the rotation as well.


Mizzou in Review

Offensive line: Veterans solidified sometimes shaky O-line

Wide receivers/tight ends: Growing pains for rebuilt receiver corps

QuarterbackBazelak took the reins in 2020

Running backRountree powered Tigers in 2020

Defensive line: D-line depth was tested in 2020

Linebacker: Bolton's tale of two seasons

Dave Matter

@dave_Matter on Twitter

dmatter@post-dispatch.com

This article originally ran on stltoday.com.

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