Quirk camp notebook: Two young cornerbacks turning heads

This spring represents a new experience for most of the Missouri defense. Former defensive coordinator Steve Wilks was replaced by Blake Baker after he left for the Carolina Panthers, and more than half of the unit is playing for a different position coach than a season ago. But no position looks as different at the cornerbacks.

Wilks and Aaron Fletcher coached the corners a season ago. Both are now gone, with Fletcher replaced by Al Pogue. Plus, five of the top six players from last season in terms of snaps played are not on the field this spring. Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV are both off to the NFL. Ishmael Burdine and Chris Shearin both transferred. And while Ennis Rakestraw and Kris Abrams-Draine are slated to return next season, neither has been cleared to practice yet due to injury. Rakestraw tore his ACL after playing four games last season, while Abrams-Draine underwent surgery on his shoulder during the offseason.

Thus, the Missouri secondary features a plethora of new faces during its first practices under Baker and Pogue. None of the players who are healthy enough to practice has been on a college campus for more than two seasons, and only one (Darius Jackson) has ever started a game.

Baker sees both pros and cons with the situation. The good news is that a host of players who lack experience will get some playing time with the first string. The downside is some of the players who the defense will likely rely on next fall might get a bit of a late start in learning what Baker and Pogue want from them.

“I think the pro is obviously these guys that haven’t played a lot of ball are now getting more reps than they probably ever bargained for,” Baker said. “The negative is the guys that have played ball maybe learning a different technique from myself or coach Pogue or maybe a different scheme altogether. That’s the negative is those guys aren’t out there, and we’re able to get them in in some walk through settings, but it’s nothing compared to full speed.”

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Pogue has tried to turn the situation into a learning experience for all his players, whether they are able to practice or not. Speaking to reporters on Feb. 28, he said he’ll use Rakestraw and Abrams-Draine as extra coaches during practices, which should help the young players develop and help them develop an understanding for the new defense even when they can’t be on the field.

“For the younger players, it gives them an opportunity to get live reps,” Pogue said. “For the guys who have played and who have the experience, now it gives them an opportunity to see it from a coach’s standpoint. Because what I’ll do, I’ll have those guys a lot of times stand out with me, and I’ll say, hey, you need to coach this young guy on his technique. Tell me what you think. And I’ll do the exact same thing. So what I’m trying to help develop them is from a mental standpoint, a coach’s standpoint. What do you see? How can you coach your brothers? Because it’s hard for me to see it all at once. But I know that I have two guys and I kind of give them some specific things to work on. That’s been helpful to me and to them, because they see it from a mental standpoint.”

So far, Baker has seen positive results from Pogue’s strategy. He called the cornerbacks “one of the most improved positions on our defense” through the first two weeks of spring ball.

He specifically praised a pair of players: Jackson and Dreyden Norwood. Norwood transferred to Missouri from Texas A&M in January after appearing in just two games as a true freshman last season. Jackson played in eight games last season and started three, recording 13 tackles and four pass break ups.

“Those two have really started to stack some days together and have probably been the most consistent back there, and both have the ability and both have a bright future ahead of them,” Baker said. “Both of them are young players, but when you look at Norwood, who was a high school quarterback, how much better he’s gotten in eight practices, and same with DJ. He’s got tremendous balance and tremendous feet, and you can see that it’s starting to come together for those two.”

Missouri cornerback Darius Jackson started three games as a true freshman in 2021. (D. Medley/USA Today)

A ‘Dude with a capital D’

Norwood isn’t the only transfer on the defensive side of the ball who has caught Baker’s eye during the past two weeks. Asked about linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper, who transferred to Missouri from Florida, Baker lit up.

“He’s a dude with a capital D,” Baker said of Hopper. “That guy can play. He’s physical, he can run, he’s smart. He is the real deal. He’s the complete package to me.”

Hopper started four games for Florida last season. He logged 62 tackles, including eight for loss. His best game came at Missouri, when he racked up 12 stops.

Now that he has joined the Tiger roster, Hopper has impressed his teammates, as well. Fellow linebacker Chad Bailey complimented Hopper’s versatility, saying he has the physicality to play in the box and the speed to cover pass-catchers. That makes him an ideal fit for the vacant weakside linebacker position in Missouri’s defense. Bailey said he’s been practicing at middle linebacker, where he started the final eight games of last season.

“He fit pretty good,” Bailey said of Hopper. “I’m playing MIKE and we need somebody who can play out of the box and also play in the box, and I think he’s doing a great job at that.”

Tigers look to take pass rush to next level

After a disastrous start to last season, the Missouri defensive line improved down the stretch — enough that Al Davis earned a promotion from interim defensive line coach to full-time defensive tackles coach. The group particularly improved against the run. Missouri allowed 138.4 yards per game and 3.57 yards per carry during its final five contests compared to 293.9 yards per contest and 6.26 yards per attempt during the first eight.

But Davis, who will split coaching duties on the defensive line with Kevin Peoples this season, made clear that he wants more from the front. In particular, he believes the defensive line can do a better job of rushing the passer than it showed last season. Missouri recorded 29 sacks last season, but just 16 of those came from the defensive line. Davis believes Missouri’s emphasis on stopping the run might have actually hindered the pass rush a bit.

“We did not pass rush well enough down the stretch,” he said. “I do think in the run game, they nutted up, they were physical, they attacked blockers. … As a pass rush, we did not help the football team. Point blank, period. We could have been better. We didn’t work edges well enough. I think at times they were so focused on stopping the run, we didn’t transition well enough. And that’s one of our goals throughout the spring is to be better transition pass rushers as a group.”

Baker said he still wants his defense to prioritize stopping the run, but he thinks the pass rush can still improve. The key, he said, will be more situational awareness. He believes Missouri’s players, particularly starting defensive ends Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat are plenty capable of harassing opposing quarterbacks. He believes the duo could benefit from being put into more situations where they don’t have to worry about playing the run — their entire focus can be getting upfield.

“I think we can do some things from a call standpoint to help them out, to recognize down and distance,” Baker said. “But when you watch our one on one pass rush, they do a good job, and I think the biggest thing is understanding tips that can allow them to kind of pin their ears back before the ball is even snapped.”

Baker said his defense has a history of producing defensive ends who can pressure the passer. Under Baker’s tutelage, Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson ranked third nationally with 14.5 sacks in 2016 and then led the country with 17.5 sacks in 2018. The following year, Baker’s first at Miami, the Hurricanes’ Gregory Rousseau ranked second in the country with 15.5 sacks.

Baker thinks Jeffcoat and McGuire have the ability to be the next names on that list.

“I think he’s had a really, really good spring for us so far,” Baker said of Jeffcoat. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I mean, he’s 275 pounds, he’s quick twitch. He has all the tools. Like I said when I first got the job, I really didn’t study too much of last year, but what I’ve seen from him so far I’ve been very, very pleased with. I think both him and Isaiah are going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

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