7 way-too-early predictions about Mizzou’s defense in 2022
The Missouri Tigers’ defense improved as the season went on in 2021. That’s not saying much, considering how awful the Tigers were early in the year.
Out is DC Steve Wilks, who went back to the NFL coaching ranks. In his place is new DC Blake Baker. We’ll see if he can get his system installed and ready for Week 1. The Tigers’ fortunes this fall may depend on it.
So, what should we expect from the Missouri defense this fall? Here’s a look at 7 early predictions for the unit in 2022:
1. Trajan Jeffcoat will make an All-SEC team push again
Jeffcoat was a huge surprise in the 2020 season, recording 6 sacks in 8 games. Last season he took a step back, picking up only 3.5 sacks in 13 games.
Well, now he’s back for a revenge tour in 2022. He’s eager to put 2021 behind him and show flashes of the guy who could become a first-round 2023 NFL Draft pick if he lives up to his immense potential.
Here’s what he’s capable of when he’s at the top of his game:
#Mizzou DE Trajan Jeffcoat finished the 2020 season with six sacks in eight games, earning him first team All-SEC honors. He has just one sack in five games this season.
Here are all six sacks from a season ago. pic.twitter.com/x7WEGcJhRQ
— Brandon Kiley (@BKSportsTalk) October 4, 2021
If the Tigers get that sort of performance from Jeffcoat again in 2022, he’ll be on an All-SEC team once again and be in the mix to be drafted at some point in the first 2 days of the 2023 NFL Draft.
2. The Tigers will force even more turnovers
Mizzou finished in a logjam for 5th place in turnovers forced in the SEC last year with 16 (along with Mississippi State, Tennessee, Arkansas and Vanderbilt). Meanwhile, they only committed 13 turnovers (11 interceptions and 2 lost fumbles). Those 2 lost fumbles were the fewest in the SEC.
The fumble numbers generally are a crapshoot every year. Sometimes, the bounces go your way. Other times, they don’t. But, with a new defensive system and hopefully less time spent out on the field this fall, I’m anticipating players will be in better positions to make plays.
Jeffcoat could (and should) have a strip-sack or 2. The secondary is full of ballhawks, particularly at the safety position. If those guys can fly around and make plays the way they’re capable of, the Tigers should force more than 16 turnovers this fall.
3. The run defense will continue to be among the league’s worst
The run defense was atrocious last year. There’s no sugarcoating that fact. Mizzou allowed a whopping 227.9 rushing yards per game. For reference, the 2nd-worst SEC run defense (Vanderbilt) allowed only 193.1 rushing yards per contest.
The Tigers ranked No. 124 out of 130 FBS teams in run defense and were ahead of only Stanford and Kansas when it came to Power 5 schools.
Mizzou also allowed a league-high 32 rushing touchdowns, 7 more than 2nd-worst Ole Miss.
Well, buckle up, Mizzou fans. Last year’s leading tackler, Blaze Alldredge, is gone. In his place will be Florida transfer Ty’Ron Hopper. He had 62 tackles (8 for a loss) and 2.5 sacks in 2021.
He’s a capable player, but there’s not much depth alongside him. Chad Bailey and Devin Nicholson are solid players, too. But, once again, the issue is depth.
If some of the younger guys don’t step up and contribute right away, it could be another long year for the run defense. The key will be the first few weeks. Mizzou’s defense improved as the season wore on in 2021. It can’t afford another slow start this year.
4. The pass defense will be much improved
The Tigers didn’t allow opponents to throw for many yards last year, averaging only 206.8 per game. But that is because teams were running at will against Mizzou. No need to pass when you’re controlling the game on the ground.
Yes, this year’s secondary will miss Tulsa transfers Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV, both of whom are off to the NFL. But there’s actually a lot of depth in the secondary heading into 2022.
Jaylon Carlies and Martez Manuel have the talent to become one of the SEC’s best safety tandems. I saw a 2023 mock draft that had Kris Abrams-Draine as a first-round pick (I swear it was real). Ennis Rakestraw Jr. will be hungry to bounce back from a down year in 2021.
Add Clemson transfer Joseph Charlton and Texas A&M transfer Dreyden Norwood to the mix and you have the makings of a deep secondary. If the Tigers can avoid any major injuries back there, they should be able to improve on their numbers from last year.
5. Jayden Jernigan is going to be a breakout star
The defensive tackle who transferred to Mizzou from Oklahoma State figures to be a mainstay in the middle of the defensive line this fall. He won’t post eye-popping numbers, but that’s not what defensive tackles are supposed to do.
He will take up a lot of space and be hard to move. If he holds up at the point of attack, the linebackers should be free to make plays against the run. It should also prevent opposing offensive lines from constantly double-teaming Jeffcoat.
He doesn’t need to be Jordan Davis, but if Jernigan can be one of the SEC’s best defensive tackles this season, the Mizzou defense will be better off for it.
6. The Tigers will improve on their 2021 sack total
Mizzou recorded 29 sacks last season. That put them in a tie with Kentucky for 9th place in the SEC. Not bad, but not great, either.
As mentioned, Jeffcoat recorded only 3.5 of those sacks. Whether that was a product of more attention from offensive lines after an All-SEC 2020 campaign or issues within DC Steve Wilks’ system is unclear, but Jeffcoat will have a fresh start this year.
Meanwhile, Ty’Ron Hopper’s cousin, Tyrone Hopper, is also in the mix. He transferred from North Carolina this offseason and should get plenty of snaps on the edge in Blake Baker’s defense.
Then, there’s Isaiah McGuire, who led the team with 6 sacks in 2021. If he can improve on that number, the Tigers will be in good shape in terms of the pass rush. With Jernigan eating up space in the middle, there should be plenty of room for those guys to operate.
Manuel has also shown he’s one of the best blitzing safeties in the league, which just adds to the weapons Baker has to work with.
7. DJ Wesolak will be the freshman who contributes the most
The 4-star edge rusher out of Boonville is immensely talented at getting after opposing quarterbacks, and coaches and fans alike were thrilled when he chose to commit to the Tigers as part of the loaded 2022 class.
This team isn’t going to have as much success as fans expect unless a couple of the freshmen contribute right away. With Jeffcoat and McGuire drawing their fair share of attention coming off the edge, Wesolak has the potential to come in and win a few 1-on-1 matchups.
I just talked about how the Tigers should improve on their 2021 sack total in the previous section. If Wesolak can be a guy who records 8 or 9 tackles for loss and 3 or 4 sacks, the Tigers will be in a good place when it comes to rushing the passer.