Wilks' arrival marks season of change for Mizzou's defense

By Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
New Missouri defensive coordinator Steve Wilks speaks to reporters via Zoom during his introductory news conference. Wilks was hired to overhaul a Tigers defense that struggled last season.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — On the north side of Columbia, a 500-pound wrecking ball has been demolishing a grain tower that's stood for more than 50 years.

Over at Mizzou, the Tigers' defense is getting similar treatment.

Last year, Missouri's offense underwent an offseason makeover under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz, who completely overhauled the offensive staff and installed a new system.

This year, it's the defense's turn.

Three of the five defensive assistants from 2020 are gone. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three were holdovers from former coach Barry Odom's staff. When coordinator Ryan Walters left for the same position at Illinois, Drinkwitz replaced him with longtime NFL coach Steve Wilks. Drinkwitz has stopped short of saying he fired Walters, but he's made it clear he wanted an upgrade after last year's struggles.

Jethro Franklin, 55, replaced Brick Haley as defensive line coach, while Aaron Fletcher is coaching defensive backs, taking over for David Gibbs, who left for a co-coordinator position at Central Florida. Franklin has spent the last 30 years on college and NFL staffs, most recently the Seattle Seahawks in 2019, while Fletcher, 43, has coached at the high school and college levels, the last six years at the University of Tulsa.

"The transition was unexpected," cornerback Ish Burdine said. "So, now there's like a whole new fresh start with Mizzou's defense."

The scheme has changed, too, though the intricate details are still fuzzy. Wilks plans to run a 4-2-5 defense, similar to the system he installed as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals in 2018, a four-down base front that operated with five defensive backs 84% of the time that season, the highest rate in the NFL, according to FootballOutsiders.com. Wilks is also coaching Mizzou's cornerbacks.

The Tigers played with five defensive backs on the field most of the last two years under Walters (two cornerbacks, three safeties), but last year fully committed to three down linemen with a fourth lineman as a stand-up edge rusher. The Tigers went from fourth in the SEC and No. 18 nationally with 4.9 yards allowed per play in 2019 to 6.1 in 2020, which ranked 10th in the SEC and No. 89 among 127 FBS teams.

When he considered candidates for the coordinator role, Drinkwitz didn't have a base scheme in mind, but he went shopping with a set of criteria.

"Number one is stop the run and have some fun," he said. "Number two is confuse, harass and hit the quarterback. Number three is situational football: turnovers, red zone and third down. How you do that is up to ... the defensive coordinator and defensive staff. That's just the results that we want. When we we come in on Monday nights (during the season) and I ask, 'OK, how are we stopping the run?' I expect an answer. 'How will we confuse, harass and hit the quarterback?' I expect an answer. Then we've got to hold each other accountable to getting that done."

In his first few weeks at Mizzou, Wilks gave the defense an introduction to his system and will gradually add pieces over the month of spring practices. The unit he inherits misses some key parts of last year's defense, most noticeably two-time All-SEC linebacker Nick Bolton, but 12 of the 16 defensive players who played 200 snaps last fall are back: six along the defensive line, one linebacker, one safety and four cornerbacks.

Safety Martez Manuel enjoyed a breakout season in 2020 as a first-year starter with 64 tackles (third-most on the team), seven tackles for loss (second-most), five breakups and 2 1/2  sacks, the most among all SEC safeties.

"Coach Wilks has a really, really good system," Manuel said. "I'm really excited and enjoying the process of learning it and sharing that knowledge with younger guys. I kind of took it upon myself to step up into a leadership role with guys like Bolton and (safety Joshuah) Bledsoe being gone. I actually told some young guys if they had any questions about the playbook to come to me. Because if I don't know the answer then we're really in trouble."

Freshman Ennis Rakestraw Jr. was the team's only cornerback who appeared in every game. Freshman J.C. Carlies and redshirt freshman Burdine also played significant snaps at cornerback. They've since learned one of the realities of college football: Staff turnover is the norm. The Tigers offer a clear example.

"Being a freshman and going through a whole coaching change, there's a lot of things going through your head, like, 'Dang, they left me,'" Rakestraw said. "But change is good. Everyone needs change someway, somewhere."

Lovett earns his number

Like last year, all newcomers are required to earn their jersey number with their play on the field. It took only two spring practices for MU's first rookie to do just that. Freshman wide receiver Dominic Lovett sported No. 7 on Tuesday, the same number he wore in 2019 at East St. Louis High School. The four-star wideout enrolled at Mizzou in January, along with Flyers teammate and quarterback Tyler Macon, and is already getting practice work with the top units.

"He's just been consistent playing with great effort and making plays," Drinkwitz said after the full-pads practice. "He made some explosive plays in Friday's and Saturday's practice and felt like he had earned the opportunity to wear number seven."