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Youth movement raises hopes for Mizzou's cornerbacks

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri cornerback Adam Sparks intercepts a pass intended for Memphis Tigers wide receiver Kedarian Jones in a 2018 game. Sparks and Jarvis Ware are listed as starters at cornerback for Mizzou now but are expected to be challenged for playing time by several young players, including top recruit Ennis Rakestraw.

COLUMBIA, Mo. – The 2019 season didn't go as planned for Missouri's cornerbacks. The numbers say the Tigers played pass defense at an elite level through the course of the season – Mizzou ranked sixth nationally in passing yards allowed per game. But high expectations for the position group didn't lead to standout performances.

MU cornerbacks didn't intercept any passes and broke up only 14 collectively, down from six interceptions and 24 breakups in 2018.

Senior DeMarkus Acy quietly played well on the outside. But after three interceptions and 10 breakups in 2018, he only got his hands on five passes last fall. A hamstring injury sidelined him for the final two games of his college career. Now he's trying to make the 49ers' roster as an undrafted free agent.

Christian Holmes wasn't nearly as disruptive as a junior, breaking up four passes, down from 12 in 2018. He lost his starting job to sophomore Jarvis Ware then, after Mizzou's head-coaching change, transferred to Oklahoma State.

The defensive staff was thrilled with Ware in preseason camp as he unseated Holmes for a starting job. But he struggled with penalties, missed time because of a few injuries and for the season broke up four passes in 11 games.

Adam Sparks returned from a serious stress fracture in his leg but his playing time was sporadic.

A season later, as the Tigers get closer to the start of preseason camp – they're hoping to get started Aug. 7 after two weeks of walk-through sessions – the group will have a new look and more competition for roles.

"I feel really good (about the cornerbacks)," defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. "There are guys people haven't heard about yet who fit the mold of what we're looking for and fit our style of play."

In the three spring practices before the coronavirus pandemic suspended team activities, Ware and Sparks opened as the team's top cornerback tandem.

"Adam is looking like himself after last year when he was coming off an injury," Walters said of the group's lone senior. "He had some quality reps for us during the season, but I think he's back to feeling confident in himself."

But there will be competition. The first contender Walters mentioned was Ish Burdine. The freshman "would have gotten a lot of playing time last year," Walters said.

But a shoulder injury in preseason camp sidelined him until the final game of the season, when he made a surprise appearance against Arkansas. By playing only one game, the Slidell, La., native was able to preserve the season of eligibility. He'll be a redshirt freshman this fall with a chance to push for a major role. Sophomore Chris Shearin is part of the mix, too, along with sophomore Chris Mills, who's coming off a knee injury.

Then there's the rookie.

"Ennis Rakestraw is here now and we're seeing on grass through workouts what we were seeing on tape from him in high school," Walters said.

Recruited heavily by Walters and cornerbacks coach David Gibbs, Rakestraw was the signing-day surprise from Duncanville, Texas, who chose Mizzou over standing offers from Alabama and Texas. The late bloomer from the Dallas area began his senior year of high school without a single scholarship offer from a Power 5 conference program – Army, Air Force and Grambling State were among his top suitors. But a strong final season for the Class 6A Division I program turned him into one of the country's most coveted cornerbacks for the February signing dates.

Mizzou made sure the Dallas area knew all about its recruiting catch: The school paid for a digital billboard welcoming Rakestraw to Mizzou shortly after signing day.

"He's a level-headed kid. (The attention) never even phased him," Duncanville defensive coordinator John Towells said earlier this year. "I know he said Alabama was his dream school but if you call 10 kids, half or more would say Alabama is their dream school because Nick Saban is there. At the same time he's more mature now … and he did the best thing for him and his family. Just like in the games, the spotlight never got too bright for him. He was never in awe."

"Ennis has had some struggles that people don't really know about," Duncanville coach Reginald Samples told the Dallas Morning News in February. "He's always been an A student. It's been the other stuff on the outside that has kept him from being like some of our other elite athletes. I'm happy that he woke up. He bought in and started really working hard, taking care of his business."

The next order of business could be cracking Mizzou's depth chart.

Mizzou signed two other defensive backs, both high school teammates from Winter Garden, Fla., to help restore the team's depth. Tyler Jones will work at safety when camp begins, Walters said. He's not sure on safety or cornerback for Jaylon Carlies, a player who's caught his eye since he arrived on campus for workouts.

"I'm still debating on whether to give J.C. over to Coach Gibbs," the cornerbacks coach, Walters said. "We'll do what's best for the team."