After enduring a mass exodus of talent that was responsible for arguably the most successful two-season stretch in the history of the program, the Missouri Tigers were hungry to make a statement in 2009.
The statement went a little something like this: “We’re not going anywhere.”
Once names like Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood, and William Moore bid adieu to their days in Columbia, many thought the Tigers would simply slip back into mediocrity.
Mizzou had its struggles last season, but an 8-5 campaign proved that the program had managed to stockpile talent to the point where lengthy rebuilding projects were no longer an option.
Daniel’s successor, Blaine Gabbert, took on the look of a future superstar. Danario Alexander matched, and then exceeded, the feats of Maclin. And for all of the ammunition that was lost from those highly explosive offenses of past seasons, the Tigers displayed an impressive ability to reload, scoring more than 30 points eight times.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, the defense was passed a torch as well.
Characterized by a large number of unfamiliar faces, a youthful Missouri defense allowed 251 yards per game through the air last season, marking the third year in succession the Tigers have ranked in the bottom half of the Big 12 in pass defense.
And the Tigers’ ineptitude to prevent teams from throwing the ball can be directly attributed to two losses: an embarrassing 40-32 home loss to Baylor and the lopsided 35-13 bowl defeat against Navy, a pass deficient team that still threw for 130 yards on only nine completions.
Apparently, something had to be done, a new scheme devised. And defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has achieved just that.
Rather than continue on with a conservative, umbrella approach to pass defense, which seemed to negate his players’ natural aggressiveness last season, Steckel is giving his corners, led by seniors Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis, permission to play considerably more press coverage. And the results have come.
Missouri’s defense dominated a majority of the spring session, holding Gabbert and the rest of offense in check as the secondary clamped down under Steckel’s new game plan.
Other than Gettis and Rutland, safeties Jasper Simmons and Jerrell Harrison—a pair of former juco players now in their second season in the program—and the rest of the crowded defensive backfield are relishing the new tactics.
Better still, the newfound excitement caused by the change in scheme is not only firing up the entire defense, but it has given pause to members of the MU offense, who have spent the spring serving as test dummies for the defense's experimentation in coverages.
"Coverage is everywhere," junior receiver Jerrell Jackson said after a March scrimmage. "You see yourself getting past one guy, but you’ve got another guy trailing right on top of you. And the corners are hitting pretty hard this year. They’re bringing the heat every play.”
Now the goal is to transfer that momentum and enthusiasm over to the season, when the Tigers will face a familiar gauntlet of potent Big 12 offenses that have thrown the ball at will in recent past.
One of college football’s youngest teams in 2009, the Tigers broke in seven new starters on defense and at times paid a heavy price. In 2010, many of the names remain the same, but the Tigers are taking the steps to make sure that isn’t a bad thing.