The 2017 off-season has been no different. Most pundits expect little progress from last season’s squad and predict Mizzou to be either last or next-to-last in the SEC East (an expectation they are accustomed to) and the projections aren’t entirely without merit. Mizzou had an abysmal 4-8 2016 campaign and their historically bad 2016 defense appears even weaker due to the loss of NFL draft pick DE Charles Harris, CBs Aarion Penton and John Gibson, LBs Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom, and DT Josh Augusta.
So what do we Tiger fans have to bolster our claim that the 2017 Mizzou team will make a rebound? Actually, we have a relatively strong case. First and foremost, our offense should be good … like really good. We are returning 10 of our 11 starters, which include 3,000 yard passer Drew Lock, 1,000 yard rusher Damarea Crockett, and 1,000 yard receiver J’Mon Moore. Even the most dismissive of pundits agrees that the Tigers should put a lot of points on the board. When you can score, you can create upsets. When you only win four games in a season, it doesn’t take a lot of upsets to improve on that mark.
Secondly and frankly, most importantly, we need to return to that defense. While national and SEC pundits have focused on personnel when assessing the state of Mizzou’s defense, Tiger fans have paid attention to scheme. And we’re right to do so. While Mizzou lost talented defenders in Harris and Penton, the rest of the departures are eminently replaceable.
While popular due to his massive teddy bear size and talent as a makeshift fullback, Josh Augusta never quite maximized his potential and even faded down the stretch of his senior season. He was really just too big and even though he managed that girth well, a more typically sized tackle in his role will be more apt to hit gaps and make tackles.
Donavin Newsom spent two years as the starting strong-side linebacker but let’s face it, he was always the weakest link in that unit for Mizzou. Same goes for John Gibson. Mizzou’s corners got burned a ton last season and you can put a lot more of that on Gibson than you can Penton. Much like Charles Harris, Aarion Penton will unquestionably be missed in coverage.
So that takes us back to scheming. We all know that Head Coach Barry Odom started the 2016 season with a new 3-4, read-and-react, two-gap defensive scheme led by new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross. We also all know the results were a complete disaster. Seven games into the season, Odom reverted to their standard 4-3 setup and took over in-game play calling. There was some speculation that he might try the 3-4 scheme again this year when he hired his brother Brian Odom as his new outside linebackers coach. Teams running a 4-3 rarely utilize this coaching role. Odom #1 quickly snuffed those rumors out however and assured Tiger faithful that Odom #2 would be working within the 4-3 setup, no matter how unorthodox that coach/scheme alignment might seem.
Odom has also stated that he continues to call plays. There was a noticeable uptick in performance after blowing up the defensive strategy mid-season and we Tiger fans have hope that an entire off-season spent learning and practicing the tried-and-true scheme will see that improvement continue. But is that hope justified? Will improvement come from a porous defense that’s been depleted from natural attrition and NFL scavenging? It’s time to take a look. Because the stark reality in Columbia this fall is that the success or failure of the 2017 Mizzou Tigers hinges entirely on what their defense will look like.
We Tiger fans have talked a lot about pass-rush-first, read-and-react, 4-3, 3-4, 1-gap, 2-gap, mumbo jumbo. But how many of us really know what it means? And how does our scheming impact our success, and how well does it match to the personnel we have to work with? Let’s investigate…
We’re going to separate our schemes by gap protection because it’s really the most accurate and stark difference between how the 2016 and 2017 Tigers defense will approach their jobs. Read-and-react is really kind of a bullshit term. All linemen and linebackers read the play and react to it, no matter what kind of scheme their employing. Separating the schemes by 3-4 vs. 4-3 is also tricky because of how often linebackers sneak up or drop back on any individual play or series. So let’s start with 2016. We began the season with a two-gap scheme. Let’s look at what it is…
For a lineman to work within a two-gap scheme, he must have a broader perspective of how the offensive play will develop. He is responsible for the gaps on either side of his opposing offensive lineman. Rather than crashing through a single assigned gap, he must read the play and react to what gap the running back chooses to breach. Two-gap linemen are expected to take blockers head on and defend the gaps over each of their shoulders. This scheme is typically operated out of the 3-4 formation.
Two-gap linemen are traditionally larger and therefor slower, with the expectation being that they will quickly diagnose the offense and eat space in that area. This is why it was somewhat odd for Barry Odom to immediately switch his 2016 defense to a two-gap system, as Gary Pinkel’s linemen were recruited for their speed rather than their size. These players were born pass-rushers not space eaters. Playing a scheme not suited to his players spelt immediate doom for Mizzou’s 2016 defense and teams ran through Mizzou like goose shit sliding through a tin horn.
In 2017, Mizzou will be returning to its traditional one-gap scheme. In this system, a lineman attacks the single space to which he’s assigned no matter what takes place in that gap. During running plays, the lineman will go for the running back or plug his gap to prevent the running back from having that option, thus spilling him laterally. During passing plays, the lineman takes on his opposing offensive lineman in an effort to shed his block and pressure the quarterback.
This formation typically utilizes a 4-3 formation due to needing more linemen to cover all the possible gaps. Linemen in this formation are traditionally lighter and faster, as Mizzou’s linemen are. This is the natural scheme for our current personnel and experience has shown Odom that until that personnel changes, the one-gap system will provide the highest likelihood of success.
Until we see what this revamped version of the Mizzou defense looks like, it’s anyone’s guess whether the media or the Tigers fans are right about Mizzou’s prospects. Personally, we roll with Barry. We’re optimistic Mizzou can shake shit up once again in the SEC East!