The first Missouri football season of the Eli Drinkwitz era showed both plenty of reasons for optimism as well as room for improvement. The Tigers finished a 10-game, all-SEC schedule with a record of 5-5, including an upset of defending national champion LSU and at one point cracking the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 25. However, the team also dropped its final two games of the season and saw an average margin of defeat of 24 points in its five losses.
In this series, we will go position by position to break down Missouri’s performance in 2020 and look ahead to spring football practices, which are scheduled to start at the end of this week. Last week, we took a look at the situations at linebacker and cornerback. Today, it’s time to round out the defensive side of the ball by breaking down the safety position, where Missouri will be tasked with replacing two multi-year starters.
Missouri’s trio of starting safeties might have served as the team’s most consistent position group in 2020. There was little doubt entering the season who would start at each spot, with Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe manning the two traditional safety positions and Martez Manuel serving as a hybrid between a strong safety and outside linebacker in the Tigers’ 4-2-5 base scheme. Those three players dominated the playing time at their respective positions, with Bledsoe and Manuel playing more snaps than anyone else on the defense. Gillespie did cede a bit of playing time to Jalani Williams, but only due to injury.
Gillespie continued to serve as a heavy hitter and solid coverage option in the middle of the field. He recorded 46 tackles in nine games and gave up seven completions for 47 yards and one touchdown when he was in coverage on the season. Bledsoe played a more versatile role, playing some free safety as well as serving as Missouri’s primary slot cornerback. He had some struggles, particularly covering Arkansas’ Treylon Burks and Mississippi State’s Jaden Walley, but he came through with a few big plays as well, most notably breaking up LSU’s fourth-down pass in the end zone to seal Missouri’s victory over the defending national champs. Both Bledsoe and Gillespie have a shot to be selected in this spring’s NFL Draft, with Gillespie a possible second-day pick.
Manuel, the lone new starter among the trio, had a breakout sophomore season. The Columbia native had appeared in all 10 games in 2019 but mainly on special teams. In 2020, he finished third on the team with 64 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Manuel had some occasional struggles in pass coverage, an area the staff will hope he can improve this offseason, but he will likely anchor the secondary next year.
Departing: Joshuah Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie
Returning: Martez Manuel, Stacy Brown, Jalani Williams, Tyler Jones, Aidan Harrison, Mason Pack, Shawn Robinson, Chris Shearin
The departure of Bledsoe and Gillespie leaves a large void in the middle of Missouri’s secondary. The duo combined to start 49 games for the Tigers. Outside of Manuel, the returning players at safety have combined to start two.
One of those starts belonged to Williams, a former four-star recruit out of St. Louis who battled injuries during his first two years on campus. The redshirt sophomore started the second game of last season in place of Gillespie and played 133 snaps on the year. He handled himself pretty well, accumulating 14 tackles, including one for loss, and earning an overall defensive grade of 69.1 from Pro Football Focus. He should have the inside track to one of the open starting spots.
The rest of the returners represent are pretty much unknown commodities. Former walk-on Mason Pack actually might have the most experience of the bunch. The senior started Missouri’s 2020 season finale in place of Gillespie, earned a scholarship from the coaching staff and opted to return for a fifth year in 2021. Most of Pack’s experience so far in his college career has come on special teams — he blocked a punt against Georgia last year — and that seems likely to remain the case. Stacy Brown initially looked like he might play a larger role last season after he appeared in 11 games as a true freshman, but he wound up playing just 10 defensive snaps all year. Aidan Harrison, too, provided a few glimpses as a true freshman then hardly played last year. Tyler Jones saw just a few defensive snaps as well in his first year of college ball. Chris Shearin opted out of the 2020 season, and we’re not actually certain whether he’ll be back in 2021, as he’s not currently listed on Missouri’s roster.
Then, there’s Shawn Robinson. Robinson is the most intriguing story not just among the safeties but possibly on Missouri’s roster. The former quarterback transferred to Missouri from TCU prior to the 2019 season, sat out a year, then appeared to take over for Kelly Bryant as the starter behind center. He started Missouri’s first two games of the season at quarterback before being supplanted by Connor Bazelak. Rather than transfer again, however, he started appearing on special teams and defense, and in the final game of the season, he not only played 31 snaps at safety, but excelled. Robinson recorded five tackles, a pass break-up and an interception. After the game, he revealed that the position switch would be permanent. It will be interesting to see if the can follow up the performance with enough offseason production at his new position to earn consistent playing time.
Incoming: Tyler Hibbler
Only one of Missouri’s six defensive back signees in its 2021 recruiting class was recruited specifically to play safety, although it’s always possible someone makes the switch from corner if need be. Hibbler was highly productive for Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, racking up 68 tackles and four sacks in just five games as a senior. He won’t arrive on campus until the summer, but given the lack of proven players in front of him, it’s not out of the question that he could compete for meaningful playing time as a true freshman. It’s also possible that Missouri uses one of its three remaining spots in the class to add an additional safety via the transfer portal.
Projected Starters: Martez Manuel, Jalani Williams, Stacy Brown
The spots left behind by Bledsoe and Gillespie might result in the two most wide open competitions on Missouri’s team. New defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has a number of options for how he could go about filling them. For one, he could play a third cornerback in Bledsoe’s spot, as Bledsoe spent most of his time playing more of a nickelback role last season. He could also shift Manuel from his hybrid position to one of the two deep spots — although given Manuel’s production last season, that seems unlikely. If both Brown and Manuel start, however, someone would have to play a new spot, as Brown backed up Manuel at the hybrid position last season. We also can’t ignore the possibility that one of Missouri’s starters next season at safety isn’t on the roster yet.
Spring Practice storyline to watch: What will Robinson’s role look like? Yes, he looked great in the second half against Mississippi State, but the Bulldogs had pretty much stopped trying to do anything fancy at that point and Robinson stood out more due to his effort than anything else. Effort alone probably won’t be enough to master a new position on a different side of the ball in one offseason. It will be interesting to see how Robinson compares to his peers in the secondary both in terms of technique and knowledge of the scheme. It would certainly be a cool story of perseverance if Robinson does wind up playing a major role on the defense this season.
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