Wilks shoulders blame for defensive struggles

Steve Wilks didn’t mince words. Shortly after sitting down for his weekly press conference with local media, and before being asked a question, the first-year Missouri defensive coordinator blamed himself for the Tigers’ defensive struggles at Kentucky.

“I take full responsibility for the performance last week,” Wilks said. “It wasn’t to our standard. Not even close.”

In its 35-28 loss in Lexington, Missouri surrendered 341 yards rushing. Through two weeks, the Tigers now rank last among all Power Five teams in both rushing defense (257.5 yards per game) and total defense (497.5 yards per game).

Tuesday, both Wilks and Eli Drinkwitz fielded questions about the issues that have precipitated the defensive woes. The gist of their answers: Everything needs to be better, from the defensive line, to the linebackers to the coaching staff.

“It’s all levels,” Drinkwitz said. “It’s tackling, it’s bad eyes, it’s gap integrity, it’s beating the man across from you. It’s a lot of different factors that have to be cleaned up and fixed.”

Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks took full responsibility for his unit giving up 341 yards rushing during a loss at Kentucky. (Gabe DeArmond)

Missouri’s defense got off to a poor start against Kentucky. On the second play from scrimmage, Wildcat wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson took a jet sweep and found a huge hole on the left side of the formation, resulting in a 64-yard gain.

Wilks said the big gain happened largely because Missouri didn’t have the right personnel on the field. Due to a miscommunication from the coaches’ box, he thought Kentucky was starting the game in a jumbo package, so Missouri tried to match that with a fifth defensive lineman on the field for the first two snaps.

Wilks said the error was “totally on me.” After spending the first two games on the sideline, he plans to coach Missouri’s matchup against Southeast Missouri on Saturday from the box.

“When you start talking about how can you make corrections, one of the things right now is looking at yourself, and I’m going to the box,” Wilks said. “So hopefully it will give me better eyes to be up top and to be able to see things and to have a better jump on calling the plays.”

Even when the Tigers got back to their base defensive package, the results didn’t get much better. Kentucky continually created massive holes for tailback Chris Rodriguez, who rushed for 207 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. After the game, Drinkwitz said the Wildcats did most of their damage on simple inside zone runs. Missouri tried to adjust by stunting its defensive ends toward the interior of the line, but the defensive linemen simply struggled to get off blocks.

Wilks acknowledged that there has likely been a bit of a learning curve as Missouri’s players have adjusted to his scheme, and the staff might look at simplifying the defensive calls in the future. But no matter the scheme, his players need to do a better job of executing the fundamentals and beating the man lined up across from them.

“We’ve got to do a great job of really using our weapons and getting off blocks,” Wilks said. “We can’t get engulfed. … We gotta do a good job up front staying in our gaps and not getting knocked out.”

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The issues extended beyond the first level of the Missouri defense. While starting linebackers Blaze Alldredge and Devin Nicholson finished the game first and second on the team in tackling, many of those stops came a ways downfield, once Rodriguez and company had already found a hole and gained four or more yards. According to Pro Football Focus, 187 of Kentucky’s rushing yards came before contact.

Alldredge said the linebacker corps didn’t do a good enough job setting edges against Kentucky, himself included. While he finished the game with a team-high 13 tackles and blocked a field goal, he went so far as to apologize for his play.

“I think that I have a lot more to give, and it’s not necessarily an effort thing, because I think that I’ve been playing hard, and that’s one of my traits is that I’m going to leave it all out on the field,” he said. “… But I do want to kind of apologize, because I think that I have more that I can give, and they’re going to get that from me going forward.”

Drinkwitz does not believe fixing the issues is as simple as swapping out players. Particularly at linebacker, the Tigers have largely relied on the same guys despite their struggles. Alldredge played 70 of 72 defensive snaps against Kentucky and has only been off the field for 11 snaps all season. The staff did try to replace Nicholson with Chad Bailey for 16 snaps on Saturday, but the results didn’t appear to improve. Nicholson has played all but 20 snaps on the year.

Drinkwitz assured that, if the coaches thought other players at the position would perform better, they would be on the field. He’d actually like a deeper rotation, he said. But based on what he’s seen at practice, Alldredge and Nicholson give Missouri the best chance to win.

“We really wish we were playing five guys at linebacker,” Drinkwitz said. “But the reality of it is nobody’s stepped up in practice to prove that they deserve the opportunity to play. And that’s just the reality of it. This isn’t open tryouts. The tryouts are on Sunday and Tuesday and Wednesday. And whoever has been playing has shown us on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday that they deserve the opportunity to play.

“It’s not like we’re trying to hold anybody back. It’s not like we’re trying not to play the best players. Like, sure, we would love not to give up 340 yards rushing. So other people will play when they can earn the opportunity to play.”

While the issues might be widespread, Wilks expressed optimism that Missouri will get them fixed. He watched film of the Kentucky game during the flight home on Saturday night, he said, as well as both Sunday and Monday, and he came to the conclusion that the majority of the Tigers’ errors were “self-inflicted.” That made the season’s first loss difficult to swallow, but further motivated him to seek solutions.

“Our offense did enough for us the other night, as well as special teams, for us to win that game, and we just didn’t get it done on the defensive side of the ball,” Wilks said. “It’s a lot of pride in that room. It’s a lot of pride, starting with me, and we’re going to find a way to get this thing corrected, get on the right track.”

Carlies providing a spark from new spot

One positive for the Missouri defense has been the emergence of free safety Jaylon Carlies, who appears to have found a home playing his third position in as many seasons. Carlies lined up mostly at wide receiver for his West Orange (Fla.) high school team, then started three games at cornerback as a true freshman last season.

After the departure of free safety Tyree Gillespie and the arrival of Wilks, the Tiger staff switched Carlies to a new spot in the secondary, and he has shone through two games. All the coaches want to see from him now is to spend more time on the field.

Carlies has only played 62.5 percent of Missouri’s defensive snaps thus far. He sat out the first half of the season-opener against Central Michigan due to a suspension from a targeting penalty called on him during the final game of 2020 and missed much of the third quarter at Kentucky due to “some sickness,” according to Wilks. Still, he’s recorded three of Missouri’s four turnovers so far this season, with two interceptions and a forced fumble.

“The dude’s a playmaker,” Drinkwitz said of Carlies. “He’s got three turnovers in basically one game. So we gotta keep him out there. … He’s got the potential to be an elite player for us.”

Missouri safety Jaylon Carlies has forced three turnovers in the team’s first two games this season. (Denny Medley/USA Today)

Wilks called Carlies the spark of the Missouri defense. He complimented Carlies’ strength, saying he lifts weights with the team’s defensive linemen, as well as his range in coverage and the force with which he hits.

“Great player,” Wilks said of Carlies. “He works hard at it, he’s always in the office trying to study and get better. So we definitely need him out there. So he’s definitely that spark for us right now.”

Carlies showed that hard-hitting ability when he forced Rodriguez to fumble in the second quarter at Kentucky — a major reason why Missouri was able to keep the score within reach. With Rodriguez about two yards away from reaching the end zone and making the score 28-7, Carlies lowered his shoulder and jarred the ball free.

Carlies said Tuesday he wasn’t thinking about creating a takeaway, just doing everything he could to keep Rodriguez out of the end zone and allow the defense to fight another down.

“The first thing in my mind was just to keep my team alive and keep them playing on the down, and just try to keep them out of the end zone,” he said.

Drinkwitz not overlooking SEMO

Normally, Missouri’s annual matchup with an opponent from the FCS provides a blowout victory and the opportunity to play some backups on game day. Since Division I-AA was renamed the Football Championship Subdivision in 2006, Missouri has won all 14 of its matchup with FCS opponents, all by at least 20 points. The Tigers have played Southeast Missouri three times during that span, winning the three meetings by a combined score of 136-6.

But, as is typical of a college football coach, Drinkwitz isn’t taking anything for granted. He said SEMO will “present a very difficult challenge for us in a lot of different ways.” He also noted that seven FBS teams have lost to an FCS opponent so far this season. The coaching staff printed out a list of those results and pasted them in every player’s locker this week.

“I’m going into it with the mentality that this Southeast Missouri State team is a very good special teams operation,” Drinkwitz said. “They’ve blocked 12 kicks over the past three seasons. They’ve got multiple different fronts in coverages, which gave us lots of issues last week against Kentucky and against Central Michigan. They run the football, which we haven’t stopped the run consistently the first two games. So in my mindset, we’ve got to go play really well. And that’s it.”

SEMO enters this matchup having lost both of its first two games of the season, both against FCS foes: Southern Illinois and Sam Houston. But Drinkwitz sent a clear message that he’s not thinking about which reserves he can get on the field Saturday. His only concern is winning, and he’ll play the starters as long as it takes to ensure that.

“If anybody else plays, that’s going to be determined based on the fact that they have earned the opportunity to play,” he said. “Not based on, well, this is a Division I-AA school and we’re an SEC school, so so-and-so should get to play, and Johnny gets to go ahead and get in the game this week. I don’t ever think that way, and I sure as heck don’t think that way with seven FCS teams beating Division I teams this year.

“So if anybody thinks that they’re just going to get to play this week because we’re playing SEMO, they’re absolutely insane. The only people that are going to play are the people who earn that opportunity on Tuesday and Wednesday by the way they practice.”

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