Saturday, when Steve Wilks’ defense takes the field for the first time since he was hired by Missouri in January, he doesn’t know who will line up behind center for Central Michigan. Head coach Jim McElwain hasn’t yet announced whether returner Daniel Richardson or Washington transfer Jacon Sirmon will start at quarterback, and he said Monday that both will see the field.
But that’s not the biggest unknown for Wilks — not even close. The longtime NFL staffer is back in the college ranks for the first time since 2005, and as a result, he didn’t get a chance to see his defense in action during a preseason game prior to the season opener. While Wilks expressed confidence in his unit’s preparation, he acknowledged that it’s been an adjustment. Asked Tuesday afternoon how he’s been able to ascertain the readiness of the unit, he responded simply “you don’t know.”
“I definitely think it’s an unknown,” he said. “I really don’t like to use the word fear, because when you have the proper preparation, that eliminates fear. And we’re trying to do everything we can to prepare these guys the right way, so when they step on the field they’re very confident.”
Wilks is far from the only coach on the Missouri staff who will take the field Saturday (he’s planning to coach from the sideline rather than the booth) without knowing what to expect from his players. Eli Drinkwitz said Tuesday that you can’t take anything for granted during a season opener. No matter how much experience a player or position group might have, strange things happen once the scoreboard turns on for the first game.
“There’s all kinds of different things and outcomes when you play in a Week One game that you have to be prepared for, whether it’s guys catching punts on the one-yard line and throwing them forward or motion penalties, bad snaps,” Drinkwitz said. “Just crazy things that seem to always pop up in Week One.”
That said, Wilks enters this season in a particularly unique situation. The last time he coached in college, Brad Smith was starting at quarterback for Missouri. The game has transformed quite a bit since then. Wilks, who spent the 2020 season out of coaching, said he used the year off to study up on the current college offensive trends.
“I learned that they’ve got crazy formations, and a lot of these formations are illegal in the NFL,” he said. “So just identifying who’s eligible and who’s dead, who’s not and who can go out. Sometimes the tempo is so fast that that’s the reason that they do it, to allow you to not be able to see it.”
In response to the up-tempo, spread offenses that dominate college football today, Wilks has made a few tweaks to the Missouri defense, implementing a four-man defensive front and playing with a third cornerback on the field in the team’s base package. He’s also asked the defensive backs to play more zone coverage than they did under former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.
But the scheme isn’t the aspect of the defense that the coaching staff is anxious to see. Drinkwitz said he’s very comfortable with Wilks’ defense and believes the players have a firm grasp of it. The unknown variable is how players and staff alike will react to the type of adversity that can’t be replicated during a practice or scrimmage.
“We haven’t been tested by fire yet,” Drinkwitz said. “We haven’t had the adversity of being down or giving up points on a scoreboard. So we’re going to have to see how all that comes together, whether it’s our defensive staff working together, whether it’s me reacting to what occurs in the game or making adjustments. Defenses giving up a big play and trying to figure out how to fix it on the sidelines. So I think there’s a lot of questions that still have to be answered.”
The key to answering those questions against Central Michigan, Wilks believes, will be fundamentally-sound play. Wilks specifically pointed to tackling and discipline.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, look for the Chippewas to run the ball early and often. Central Michigan ranked No. 16 nationally in rushing offense last season and averaged more yards per game on the ground (218.2) than through the air (202.3). While Central Michigan did lose its top returning running back in terms of carries, Kobe Lewis, to a knee injury during fall camp, the Chippewas still feature a proven runner in Lew Nichols, who averaged 6.5 yards per carry on 78 totes a season ago. Wilks said a key to slowing down the ground game will be avoiding missed tackles.
“Tackling is always a key in that first game,” he said. “We gotta be great tacklers, and it’s not just the first guy, we gotta have 11 guys getting to that football.”
The Central Michigan offense also features a unique weapon in Kalil Pimpleton. Pimpleton is listed as a wide receiver, but he touches the ball in just about every way possible: as a pass-catcher, a runner, a punt returner, and even a quarterback. Drinkwitz noted that the Wildcat formation with Pimpleton behind center isn’t just a gimmick for the Chippewas — they use the formation often, and aren’t afraid to ask Pimpleton to throw the ball. Last season, he completed five of eight passes and threw a touchdown.
In order to contain Pimpleton, Drinkwitz and Wilks said Missouri will have to both identify where he’s lined up before the snap and stay disciplined once he touches the ball: setting edges to prevent him from getting around the corner and staying in coverage with other receivers in case he decides to throw.
“They move him around quite a bit,” Wilks said of Pimpleton. “We gotta identify where certain guys are aligned within the formation. He is definitely one. He is a game-changer when he gets the ball in his hands. So it’s very important that everyone on the defense know where he’s aligned.”
Both Drinkwitz and Wilks believe the Missouri defense is capable of executing at the level it needs to in order to take care of business during Wilks’ debut. But like most coaches, they won’t be able to rest easy until they see it for themselves.
“I have a lot of confidence,” Drinkwitz said. “Obviously Steve has been coaching football for a long time and knows what it takes, and our staff knows what it takes. But again, just like anything else, until you really do it, you’re not going to be quite sure where the deficiencies are and what has to be fixed.”
One extra hurdle that the defense will have to clear against Central Michigan is the absence of free safety Jaylon Carlies during the first half. Carlies, listed as the starter on Missouri’s first depth chart of the 2021 season, will miss the first 30 minutes due to a targeting penalty called on him during the second half of the team’s final game in 2020.
Drinkwitz said the coaching staff appealed the half-game suspension during the offseason, but to no avail.
“We appealed for COVID reasons and they didn’t accept it,” Drinkwitz said. “Pretty down about it. Figured with the transfer waiver, they’d waive the targeting penalty, too, but I guess not.”
Jalani Williams will start in place of Carlies. The St. Louis native made his first two college starts a season ago in relief of an injured Tyree Gillespie. He said Tuesday the fact that he’s starting won’t change his preparation entering the game.
“I was always told, like, even if you’re the backup, whatever position or role that you may have, always prepare as if you’re the starter so nothing surprises you,” Williams said. “Any time, any given moment, you’re a second from being that guy, so you always gotta stay ready.”
Speaking of Missouri’s first depth chart of the season, the two-deep was largely dominated by returning players, which isn’t a surprise given that the Tigers brought back 19 starters from a season ago, if you include four special-teamers. There is, however, a bit of fresh blood in the mix.
Four true freshmen appeared on the depth chart. Former East St. Louis wide receiver Dominic Lovett is the least surprising of those names. Lovett, who originally committed to Arizona State before flipping to Missouri and who enrolled early enough to participate in spring practices, is expected to play regular snaps at wideout this season.
Lovett was joined by offensive lineman Connor Tollison, listed as one of two co-backups to Michael Maietti at center, as well as defensive linemen Arden Walker and Mekhi Wingo. Walker is listed as a backup at defensive end, while Wingo is one of two second-string defensive tackles listed behind Akial Byers.
Drinkwitz said the fact that the three linemen have already made such an impression shows that his staff successfully identified impact players in the 2021 recruiting class, and that those players have worked hard since hitting campus.
“Obviously Connor has played a lot of tackle for us, but we moved him into the center position, and he’s really taken off and run with it,” Drinkwitz said. “He’s a guy that’s athletically gifted and physical and got the right mindset. I think the future is really bright for him and we trust him in a game situation. Mekhi Wingo has been a guy that has been a really good defensive player for a long time. I know he was the metro player of the year in St. Louis last year, so he just comes in with the right work ethic and mindset. He’s got quickness and plays with unbelievable effort. Arden Walker has really done the same thing, and so those guys have earned the positions that they’re in.”
The biggest question mark for Missouri entering the first game of the season has centered around a pair of receivers. Drinkwitz revealed Tuesday that Ja’Mori Maclin will not play against Central Michigan due to a fractured forearm.
The status of fellow slot receiver Mookie Cooper, however, seems to be trending in the right direction. Drinkwitz listed Cooper as “questionable” due to a lower body injury he’s been battling for a few weeks, but he was on the practice field with the team Tuesday. During the portion of practice that was open to reporters, Cooper appeared to fully participate.
Running back Tyler Badie practiced Tuesday, as well. On Wednesday, when Drinkwitz last addressed the media, he noted that Badie hadn’t practiced as a precaution, but assured that the team expected Badie to be fully healthy against Central Michigan.
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