Wilks shakes up roles, philosophy for Mizzou secondary

Dave Matter
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Missouri defensive back J.C. Carlies (17) defends LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. in their game last fall. Carlies has been switched to safety from cornerback in spring practice by new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri's J.C. Carlies is a traitor.

That's what teammate Ennis Rakestraw Jr. calls him — all in good fun.

Last fall, the two freshmen became the Tigers' starting cornerback tandem, but new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has different plans for Carlies. With MU's three-year starting safeties off training for the NFL, Wilks decided he needed to shake up his secondary after evaluating the roster. Carlies, who played wide receiver almost exclusively in high school, was the team's free safety in Saturday's open practice and promptly intercepted two passes, one he would have returned for a touchdown.

Tigers coach Eli Drinkwitz has made it clear players won't earn starting jobs until preseason camp in August, but it appears Carlies is making a push at a position of need.

"Man, J.C. is going to be something special," Rakestraw said after Tuesday's practice, MU's sixth of the spring. "I hate that he left me. We're roommates at home, so now every time I see him I tell him he's a traitor. We used to be the ones laughing in the (cornerback) meetings, and now he left me. But he'll be good. He was a receiver coming out of high school, so he's got good ball skills. Now you add good ball skills to a zone coverage and he'll be able to identify routes. That's what's going to make him a good player because he already knows the routes. ... I'm really excited to see what he's going to do. I know he's going to catch some picks."

Wilks, back coaching on a college campus for the first time since 2005, is still settling into his new role — "It's like standing in front of a fire hydrant," he said Tuesday — but he's bullish on how quickly his new players have picked up his system. Wilks is gradually installing his 4-2-5 base scheme while deciding which players fit into which roles.

"We try to minimize the volume and maximize execution," Wilks said Tuesday. "So we're phasing things in. As they show to me and prove to us as coaches that they can earn more of the playbook, we'll give it to them. It's not so much what I want to do. It's what they're able to do. And we want to do our best job of putting these guys in position to be successful and make plays."

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.

Carlies, who played 255 snaps at cornerback last fall and made three starts, has worked in the secondary with returning starter Martez Manuel at safety. Chris Shearin, who opted out last year early in the season, has worked with the first unit as the third safety, though converted quarterback Shawn Robsinson and, once he's recovered from offseason surgery, Jalani Williams could factor into the mix, too. The Tigers are replacing two three-year starters at safety in Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie, who played a combined 3,600 snaps in the secondary from 2017-20.

Under Wilks, who coached in the NFL from 2006-19, including the 2018 season as Arizona's head coach, the Tigers plan to play more zone coverage this year, which he thinks should translate into more chances for interceptions. Mizzou played primarily man-to-man coverage under former coordinator Ryan Walters, and last year the Tigers picked off just four of their opponents' 311 passes. MU's cornerbacks were targeted 131 times, according to Pro Football Focus, and combined for just 10 pass-breakups and one interception.

"They played a lot of man last year, which you saw really limited amount of takeaways because our back is to the ball all the time," Wilks said. "Now, with zone eyes, being able to see (the field), going through the route progression, getting the jump on the quarterback, I've been very impressed with how quickly we've picked those things up."

He's impressed with his converted cornerback, too. When Carlies first came to Mizzou last summer from Winter Gardens, Florida, he first worked with the safeties before he joined Rakestraw and the cornerbacks. As injuries and opt-outs depleted the team's depth, he earned the staff's trust to start at South Carolina the sixth game of the season, then started the final two games of the year against Georgia and Mississippi State, though he was ejected for targeting in the finale.

"Great athleticism, long, tall, great ball skills," Wilks said. "He's making plays on the football. (He has) the ability to be able to run sideline to sideline, showing the ability to step up and make tackles. I like his coverage skills, too, because we cover down in the slot."

Linehan on hand this spring

A familiar face watched Tuesday's spring practice along the back of the end zone, keeping a close eye on Drinkwitz as he put the quarterbacks and receivers through drills: former St. Louis Rams head coach Scott Linehan.

Matt Linehan, Linehan's son, is new to Drinkwitz's staff as the team's offensive graduate assistant. Scott is spending time with the team this spring in an unofficial role, Drinkwitz confirmed after Tuesday's practice.

Linehan, 57, served as the Rams head coach from 2006-08, going 11-25 before he was fired four games into his third season. From 2009-13, he served as the Detroit Lions offensive coordinator, followed by five years with the Dallas Cowboys, the last four as coordinator. He was LSU's passing game coordinator last year before an offseason staff shakeup.

Like his father, Matt Linehan played quarterback at Idaho, where he was a four-year starter from 2014-17, including a 2017 loss at Mizzou, when he threw two touchdowns.