As Missouri prepares to kick off fall camp practices for its second season under head coach Eli Drinkwitz, a sense of normalcy has returned. Drinkwitz’s debut season got delayed and de-railed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but after the Tigers managed to go 5-5 against an all-SEC schedule, fans are optimistic to see what he can do in year two.
Drinkwitz and Missouri will start fall camp practices the first week of August. So, every day over the next couple weeks, we will break down each of the team’s position groups. Today, we turn our attention to the defensive side of the ball by taking a look at the defensive tackle position.
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At one point, it looked like Missouri would lose virtually its entire defensive line to graduation following last season. But thanks to the NCAA’s decision not to count 2020 against any player’s eligibility, the Tigers have a pair of veterans headlining the interior of the line.
Kobie Whiteside should be hungry to prove himself after injuries sidelined him for the majority of last season. Whiteside was tabbed to the all-SEC preseason team but appeared in just five games due to a pair of different leg injuries. If he can get back to the form he showed in 2019, when he led the team with 7.5 sacks, the entire defense would benefit. Whiteside will likely be joined by fellow fifth-year senior Akial Byers atop the depth chart. Byers made four starts a season ago and recorded 15 tackles, including 2.5 for loss.
In his third season at Missouri, Darius Robinson might finally be ready to take the next step. Robinson, too, dealt with injuries last season and missed three games, but he looked pretty good when healthy, totaling 12 tackles and a sack. Look for Robinson to have a spot in the regular rotation and possibly push for a starting position.
Other players we expect to contend for regular playing time include Realus George Jr. The junior college transfer started his college career as a fullback before converting to the defensive line, and he earned some praise from the coaching staff during spring practices. Ben Key, another junior college transfer who joined the roster prior to last season, didn’t play a lot in 2020 but could be asked to do more this season. And while it’s rare to see a true freshman play meaningful snaps in the trenches in the SEC, Mekhi Wingo could have an opportunity, both because of Missouri’s lack of depth at defensive tackle and his production at the high school level. Wingo was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in Missouri after he racked up 54 tackles, including 16 for loss and five sacks, in just seven games last fall.
Camp Storyline to Watch
Will the coaching staff move some players who have previously played on the edge to defensive tackle? With the six players named above representing the only scholarship players listed on Missouri’s roster as defensive tackles, the team could find itself a bit short-handed on the interior of the line, especially if injuries strike again this season. Given that the roster lists 11 scholarship players as defensive ends, it seems logical that at least a couple of those players will spend some time during camp working on the interior. Isaiah McGuire, Daniel Robledo and Chris Turner would all seem to be candidates to at least cross-train between tackle and end, something Missouri has done before.
Most teams rotate four players regularly among the two defensive tackle spots, and if that’s the case for Missouri this season, it doesn’t seem very difficult to project which players will take those spots. Whiteside and Byers will likely start the season atop the depth chart but Robinson and George should get plenty of snaps.