In 2021, Missouri’s defense struggled to stop any offense the team played. The fewest amount of points it allowed in a game was 23, and it gave up over 30 points seven times. Following that season, the Tigers hired Blake Baker as their secondary coach. Then-defensive coordinator Steve Wilks later accepted a job in the NFL, and Baker was promoted to the open position.
The turnaround in 2022 was more than impressive. Mizzou boasted a top 20 defense nationally and made a name for themselves by giving Georgia problems all game long. That same Missouri defense is returning over 70 percent of its production, and the 2023 defensive unit has the potential to be one of the best in the school’s history.
Every great defense starts in the trenches, especially when looking back at past Missouri defenses. Faurot Field has been home to many great defensive linemen like Justin Smith, Markus Golden, Shane Ray, and Michael Sam. While this year’s squad may not have the superstar names of the past, it has depth.
The defensive line will be led by experienced players and returning Tigers such as Darius Robinson and Realus George, Jr., as well as Johnny Walker, Jayden Jernigan, and Kristian Williams. Mizzou added newcomers Austin Firestone (Northwestern), Joe Moore (Arizona State), and Nyles Gaddy (Jackson State). While Gaddy played at the FCS level, he was a highly touted transfer.
Young players who could see an uptick in snaps include Ky Montgomery, Marquis Gracial, and DeAndre Wesolak. The depth and experience on Missouri’s defensive line make it a good group, but one player having a breakout season could make it a great group.
The linebacker corp for Mizzou features one of the best duos in the country. Ty’Ron Hopper and Chad Bailey are two of the highest-graded returning linebackers in the country. The duo make up two of eight returning starters for the Tigers. Hopper will be backed up by Triston Newson, while Dameon Wilson will play behind Bailey. The depth chart will also feature former Wyoming Cowboy Chuck Hicks, as well as Will Norris, Carmycah Glass, and true freshman Brayshawn Littlejohn.
Hopper and Bailey will undoubtedly have to repeat their success from last season. They combined for over 20 tackles for loss and five sacks. Hopper totaled 77 tackles on the year while Bailey wrangled in 57 of his own. They will lead a somewhat inexperienced linebacker room, but the star duo will terrorize opposing offenses all season long.
Missouri’s secondary is what truly transcends them to an elite level. Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw make up one of the best cornerback duos that college football has to offer. The Tigers’ safety room is deep, experienced, and talented. Joseph Charleston and Jaylon Carlies both return after great seasons in 2022. Daylen Carnell had a breakout season last year at the star position and will now see more snaps.
Carnell was a disruptive playmaker with a nose for the ball and is likely to show the most improvement of anyone on the defense. Dreyden Norwood, Marcus Clarke, and transfers Sidney Williams and Tre’Vez Johnson will add depth to the secondary. Marvin Burks, Phillip Roche, and Nicholas Deloach headline the youth Missouri has in the defensive backfield as well.
The bottom line
Mizzou has a healthy mix of experience and youth on its defense to support the star power they have all over the field. Hopper, Robinson, and Abrams-Draine were all selected to pre-season SEC teams. Meanwhile, Rakestraw, Bailey, and Carlies could feel snubbed that they didn’t join their teammates on those prestigious lists. If it weren’t for the defense in 2022, Missouri would have struggled to become bowl eligible. With a new offensive coordinator in town and improvements all over that side of the field, the defense is set up to improve in 2023. Head Coach Eli Drinkwitz has stated there isn’t a game on the schedule that Missouri can’t win. If the Tigers manage to shock the nation and win a lot of football games, expect the defense to be leading the charge.