Mizzou Report Card: Defense & Special Teams after the Early Signing Period

Since the Tigers defeated Arkansas in week 13 to clinch bowl eligibility, the team has undergone a number of roster changes.

Now that the Early Signing Period has passed and the transfer portal has closed for the time being it is time to hand out a position-by-position report card for Missouri to see if the Tigers (on paper) have improved their roster on defense and special teams.

Defensive line: The defensive ends probably got hit the hardest with Trajan Jeffcoat transferring to Arkansas and Isaiah McGuire and DJ Coleman declaring for the NFL Draft. That’s a lot of experience and production departing from the group.

The Tigers added Northwestern transfer defensive end Austin Firestone and Arizona State defensive end Joe Moore. They also added three-star recruits Jordon Harris, Jahkai Lang, Serigne Tounkara and Sam Williams.

Firestone had three tackles and a tackle for loss in a redshirt true freshman season. He will probably be in contention to be a rotation player at least.

Moore had 24 tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks and a fumble recovery last season.

He originally committed to Washington in December before things fell through. He went to high school at Cardinal Ritter in St. Louis and was a four-star prospect in the class of 2020 who held a number of Power 5 offers including one from the Tigers. Moore is likely to be in the rotation, but he may have a chance to compete with Arden Walker and Johnny Walker for one of the starting spots.

Harris, originally a tight end, will likely be making the move to defensive end due to his size at 6-7 and 230 pounds. He’s a former basketball player and he’s going to be a big project and will almost certainly redshirt, but his size offers great potential.

Tounkara is a good running defender who is very physical and explosive. He is someone who could find his way into the rotation off of effort and motor alone if he progresses at a steady enough rate this offseason.

Lang had 66 tackles, six tackles for loss, and two sacks on defense in his senior year at Troy Buchanan (Mo.). He has already enrolled, so he will be at spring football in March, which puts him slightly ahead of Harris and Tounkara.

Missouri has retained the services of defensive tackles Realus George, Jayden Jernigan, Josh Landry, Darius Robinson and Kristian Williams. So, the interior of the line is still intact. Sam Williams, who played defensive end at Callaway (Ga.), is likely to make the move to the inside. He probably won’t get too many reps if any because Missouri’s coaching staff is high on Jalen Marshall and Marquis Gracial, but he certainly has the size Mizzou has been looking for on the interior.

Overall, this group may not have someone who can put up the production McGuire or Coleman did, but the defensive line as a unit has enough depth to still maintain a formidable front line. GRADE: A-

Linebackers: The Tigers lost Devin Nicholson to the portal, but he didn’t have a significant role on the roster, so losing him, from an on-the-field standpoint, has minimal impact.

Towards the end of the last season, Chad Bailey said he was returning in 2023, however, Ty’Ron Hopper’s whereabouts were unknown. He could have easily declared for the draft, but fortunately for the Tigers, Hopper decided to run it back next season. So, Missouri has both starting linebackers in the fold next year to go along with the other six returning starters.

In this new era of the transfer portal, players come and go a lot more and a lot faster. Every player is basically on a one-year deal and coaches have to re-recruit players on their own teams annually. So, even though Hopper was on the Tigers in 2022, he’s Missouri’s best “addition” at the position.

Since there was a decent chance Hopper could’ve been NFL-bound, the Tigers went to the portal and signed Triston Newson, a JUCO first-team All-American who just racked up 107 tackles for Northeast Mississippi CC (Miss.). Had Hopper left Newson would likely have been first in line to replace him in the starting lineup. That won’t happen now, but he likely will be able to spell Hopper when the latter is not on the field for any reason.

Missouri also added three-star linebacker Brayshawn Littlejohn, who was a Class 5A All-State player at Gaffney (SC) this past season as an outside linebacker. There are a number of players who will probably see the field before Littlejohn in 2023, but he is a solid addition to the position. Littlejohn has also already enrolled in classes, so he will be participating in spring football.

Hopper’s re-addition alone is huge, but getting another valuable rotation player and signing another player who will be given time to develop is always a good thing. GRADE: A

Secondary: The Tigers lost Martez Manuel to the draft and Jalani Williams to the transfer portal. Manuel is the biggest deal considering he was a captain for the last two years, however of the three Tigers who declared for the draft he is easily the most replaceable because Daylan Carnell proved in 2022 he is ready to take over the starting STAR position. Williams was a role player, so like Nicholson, this is not a loss that will make the position weaker on the field.

The team retained starting safeties Jaylon Carlies and Joseph Charleston, and it also retained starting cornerbacks Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw.

Carlies has had his name attached to the NFL since the end of the 2021 season and Abrams-Draine got told that he had a third-round grade for this year’s draft if he declared, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. Both of them coming back, like Hopper, are good re-additions. Especially, Abrams-Draine because he and Rakestraw are one of the best cornerback tandems in the country.

Missouri added former Florida safety Tre’Vez Johnson and former Florida State safety Sidney Williams from the portal after it signed four-star safety Marvin Burks and three-star defensive backs Nicholas DeLoach, Shamar McNeil and Phillip Roche.

Johnson is coming off the best season of his career which saw him play in 12 games and start nine at the STAR. He registered 26 tackles, two tackles for loss and one interception.

Williams, who happens to be the cousin of Abrams-Draine, comes over after recording 12 tackles in 11 games.

Burks is the team’s highest-rated recruit and is the No. 198th player in the Rivals 250. He is a willing and physical tackler as well as a playmaker and could play any safety spot that defensive coordinator Blake Baker needs him to play. Burks has also enrolled and will participate in spring football.

DeLoach is listed as a wide receiver, but he played wide receiver and defensive back at Cahokia (Ill.) and he’s going to just stick with the defense when he comes to Columbia. He racked up 94 tackles and four interceptions with two being returned for touchdowns. He was also a wrestler and that combined with his number of tackles suggests he’s not afraid of contact, which is a common theme for this secondary.

McNeil is pretty tall for a cornerback at 6-3, but he uses his height to his advantage. He’s good at high-pointing jump balls and he mirrored receivers really well last season at American Heritage (Fla.) where he recorded 35 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception and 15 pass deflections.

Roche was told by Baker that he can be lined up at any position in the secondary, but his tape suggests he’s an ideal candidate for the STAR position in the future. He is a physical and willing tackler, but he is also a great blitzer.

This position group is the most talented on the team from top to bottom and when you factor in all of the starters coming back, the transfers coming in and the players who will likely contribute off the bench (Tyler Hibbler, Tyler Jones, Isaac Thompson and Ja’Marion Wayne) there’s almost no way for any of the recent high school signees to play. In this case, it’s a good thing because by the time they’re ready to play, they would have had a year or two of seasoning. GRADE: A

Special Teams: The special teams’ biggest departure was punter Jack Stonehouse, who transferred to Syracuse. Stonehouse was okay but struggled at times with his consistency. So, Missouri replaced him with Towson punter Riley Williams, who was a second-team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection and fourth in the FCS in punting at 44.7 yards per punt on 46 punts. Williams had 16 punts go 50 or more yards, 13 punts landed inside the opponent’s 20-yard line and just three touchbacks.

The Tigers also lost kick returner Elijah Young, who transferred to Western Kentucky, but with Nathaniel Peat and Abrams-Draine, they still have capable returners. The same can be said with Luther Burden III on punt returns, although someone like three-star wide receiver Daniel Blood could fill that role if needed.

Harrison Mevis had the worst season of his career in 2022 when he missed a career-high six field goals and went 22 0f 28 (78%) field goals. Nevertheless, at his best (5 of 5 versus Georgia in week five including three from 49+ yards) he is still one of the nation’s best kickers and Mizzou is glad to have him back in 2023.

The Tigers also signed Blake Craig, a two-star All-State kicker out of Liberty North (Mo.). Craig made 17 of 24 field goal attempts that included three 50-yard field goals (55, 52, and 50). He was also 50 of 51 on points after attempts.

Craig will be a mid-year enrollee for the Tigers and participate in spring football and may have a chance to be the kickoff specialist with Sean Koetting‘s departure.

The Tigers upgraded at punter after retaining one of the best kickers in school history and then topped it off by signing a promising kicker who can fill the role in a year. GRADE: A

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