Mizzou safety tandem has sky-high potential
As Missouri football struggled on offense much of the 2019 season, the Tigers’ defense gained experience and helped keep several games close.
Defensive standouts like Jordan Elliott, Cale Garrett and DeMarkus Acy have gone on to the NFL, but a few stalwarts from a year ago have returned to Columbia and loom large for the Tigers as they prepare for a pandemic-altered, Southeastern Conference-only schedule this year.
Perhaps the biggest luxury the Missouri defense has going into the 2020 season is its safety duo of Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, who feed off each other in a way that benefits the Tigers’ last line of defenders.
Bledsoe is projected as the starting strong safety, while Gillespie has switched to the boundary safety position, vacated by Khalil Oliver and Ronnell Perkins, which is designed to free him up to move all over the field depending on formation.
MU defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said the battle for the starting free safety position is between Columbia native Martez Manuel and redshirt freshman Jalani Williams.
Missouri’s 4-2-5 defense, implemented over the course of the past two seasons, is now the norm for the Tigers. That structure wouldn’t hold together as well without the maturity and experience of Gillespie and Bledsoe.
“I think they can be the best safety tandem in the SEC and in all of college football as well,” Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton said. “You got two very athletic guys, very smart guys, stocky safeties. ... They got more experience from last year to this year with a different type of scheme. And then, adding on from last year to this year, I feel like they’re going to have two big years.
“They’re essential for us being good on defense.”
In 2019, Gillespie and Bledsoe combined for 23 of out a possible 24 starts for the Missouri defense, with Gillespie missing the first half of the Kentucky game as the only omission.
Their stats from last season are nearly identical. Gillespie posted 34 solo tackles, 16 assisted tackles and four tackles for loss. Bledsoe made 35 solo tackles, 14 assisted tackles and four tackles for loss.
Only Bolton totaled more tackles than either of them, as he led the team with 107 total tackles.
Gillespie posted the lone sack between the duo, while Bledsoe had a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Gillespie feels their progress hasn't been stopped despite having a mostly new coaching staff around them.
New Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz retained Walters to run the defense and brought Charlie Harbison along from Appalachian State as defensive backs coach.
“I would say it's pretty comfortable,” Gillespie said. “You don't have to learn a new system or anything. That takes a lot of weight off people's backs. To have familiar faces is a good thing and a good feeling.”
“We both feel extremely comfortable out there now,” Bledsoe agreed. “Just having all that experience out there under our belts ... it feels good.”
As far as their friendship, Gillespie and Bledsoe know what to expect from each other. Bledsoe is the more methodical one who consistently makes the right reads on how to defend passes.
Gillespie is a bit more flashy of the two with big, bone-crunching hits becoming a typical part of his arsenal.
“He’s a brother,” Bledsoe said of Gillespie. “He’s going to take care of you.”
“Josh Bledsoe is big, physical, fast and smart,” Gillespie said. “He’s capable of anything. You never know what you’re going to get out of Bledsoe. Honestly, he’s a playmaker.”
Expectations for the duo are not only high among the players and coaching staff, but for Gillespie and Bledsoe themselves.
As seniors, they know they have one more season to show what they can do in the SEC. The additions of Alabama and LSU to Missouri’s schedule figure to only give them more chances to showcase their abilities.
“The sky’s the limit,” Gillespie said of his and Bledsoe’s potential. “I feel that way because we’ve been playing this game together. We’re comfortable with each other, our communication is good. We rely on each other a lot.”
Their leadership abilities will be needed more than ever before. The departures of Acy, Garrett, Elliott, Oliver, Perkins and Christian Holmes give them a chance alongside Bolton and defensive tackle Kobie Whiteside to set the tone for not only the defense, but the entire team as players hold each other accountable while playing football during a pandemic.
“They're sure going to have a really good year,” Manuel, a sophomore, said of Bledsoe and Gillespie. “Just from experience, being their fourth or fifth year in the SEC, they’re for sure going to ball out. I’m just happy to be able to be next to them and be a part of the ride.”