COLUMBIA, Mo. — Each year that they’ve constructed Missouri’s defense to catch up with the game’s offensive evolution, coach Barry Odom and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters have looked for ways to put more speed on the field. This past offseason, Mizzou broke tradition and officially overhauled its base structure, shifting to a 4-2-5 system that uses a third safety instead of a third linebacker.
Offensive spread formations have antiquated the traditional three-linebacker defense and forced teams to employ faster, more dynamic defenders, especially in the age of the RPO — the run-pass option plays.
“Nowadays, you’re getting mostly 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers), and even when it’s 12 (one back, two tight ends, two receivers) the tight end is standing up (in space),” Walters said after Tuesday’s preseason practice. “It’s just the nature of the game, the trickle-down effect from all areas of football right now. So you need those type athletes out there that allows us to be more diverse and get more favorable matchups, especially in RPO games.”
Missouri’s answer is a three-safety base system, using two traditional deep safeties to cover the short side of the field (boundary safety) and the wide side (free safety). The third safety in the equation, the strong safety, is what separates the past and the future. In Walters’ defense, that player must hold his own against the running game at the point of attack. He has to be athletic enough to cover tight ends and slot receivers in the passing game. When his number’s called he gets to rush the passer, too.
“We come up in the run, we cover one on one, we drop in zones,” senior Ronnell Perkins said. “It’s a hybrid of everything combined.”
Here’s the good news for Mizzou’s newly structured base defense: The Tigers have faith in two potential starters at the position. Perkins and fellow senior Khalil Oliver have traded shifts with the first- and second-team defense throughout camp. It might be the most-contested position battle on the team. One will start, but both will play.
“They’re 1 and 1A,” Walters said. “They’re both good at different things, so it’s really hard to tell who’s playing better at times. I would definitely see both of them getting a lot of playing time. There’s not a starter and a backup. Obviously, when we go out there for the first snap somebody has to go out there, but throughout the course of the game I see both of them playing a lot. They’re both competing. They’re both encouraging of one another. They understand we’re going to need both of them.”
“If we were playing tomorrow,” Odom said, “they’ll both play a lot.”
Perkins, a fifth-year senior from University City High, has played multiple positions the last three seasons but mostly in a part-time role. He started three games last year when the Tigers opened with three safeties against Purdue, Tennessee and Oklahoma State. Time’s running out on his college career. He knows it.
“There’s a lot of urgency. I want to end with a good year, let my name be known as a great Mizzou player that came from St. Louis,” said Perkins, who intercepted a Kelly Bryant pass late in Saturday’s scrimmage. “Every year I try to go out there and give my best, but it’s my last year. I have dreams of going to the NFL, and to do that you’ve got to dominate.”
Perkins and fellow senior Khalil Oliver took a different path to this showdown for a starting job. The Idaho native spent three years at Oregon but suffered a season-ending ankle injury one game into the 2017 season. He came to Mizzou last year as a graduate transfer and instantly became a starter. He finished fifth on the team in tackles (40).
That came as a safety, stationed deep in the secondary. Now Oliver plays closer to the line of scrimmage, where he’ll be more involved as a run-stopper alongside MU’s two inside linebackers.
Perkins and Oliver “are both physical enough to get in the box and play in there and leverage the ball back to the (middle linebacker),” Walters said. “Both of those guys are vital to what we’re doing on defense.”
They’re also both seniors, which means Missouri better have someone in mind for the future at the position. For now, that appears to be Stacy Brown, a rangy 6-foot-2, 190-pound freshman from Duncanville, Texas, who’s gotten work with the second unit in practice. When he’s not making a case for playing time this year, he’s absorbing all he can from the two fifth-year veterans.
“They’ve been (in college) since I was in eighth grade,” Brown said. “So I can really learn from them as I watch them compete and they pass their knowledge down to me.”
Tigers land pledge
Missouri's defensive line added a big piece to its future on Tuesday with a commitment from Montra Edwards Jr., a three-star defensive tackle from Lexington, Miss. Edwards, listed at 6-3, 290 pounds, is rated the nation’s No. 29 defensive tackle and No. 8 player in Mississippi by Rivals.com.
As a junior last fall at Holmes County Central High School, Edwards put up monstrous numbers for an interior lineman: 107 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. Edwards gives Mizzou 14 commitments for the 2020 class and four defensive linemen.