It’s been a year of mixed results for Missouri football.
The Tigers are currently sitting at 5-6 on the season and are playing for bowl eligibility on Friday against Arkansas. 500 football from the Tigers, who have struggled to be better than average since winning the SEC East twice in a row nearly a decade ago.
However, on at least one side of the ball, MU made a serious jump. Last year, it had one of the worst defenses in the SEC.
Now, the Tigers are fourth in the league in total defense. The unit kept Missouri in games again and again, even when offense was stagnant.
It was an unexpected turnaround, and it’s what’s kept the Tigers alive in 2022. And on Friday, they’ll hope it helps extend the season into a bowl game.
Here are the key players behind defensive resurgence.
Defensive coordinator Blake Baker
The total change in fortune for the Tigers defense came after Blake Baker was promoted after just one month. After being assigned to coach safety at Missouri in January, he was elevated to managing defense in February.
Baker was defensive coordinator before, and more recently, at Miami. However, the Hurricanes’ performance under his watch was mixed, and then head coach Manny Diaz took control of the play before Baker left for the linebackers at LSU.
When the season started, it was clear that this Baker defense was different. He’s found something for his T-type players.
“You’ll never be wrong,” said defensive lineman Darius Robinson. “As long as you play hard and get penetration, it just allows you to get out there and feel comfortable. And that’s not a blow to our previous defences, his system is defensive line friendly and I think we made the most of our opportunity.”
Last season, the Tigers were in dire straits on the rush. Since Baker took over, they’ve been exceptional, with even Arkansas coach Sam Pittman admitting this week that Missouri is a tough running back.
Another thing Becker has been exceptional this season is tackling issues as they come off. Early on, it was explosive plays and poor angles that doomed the Tigers against Kansas State as they lost 40 points.
“Talent is not a problem,” Baker said the week after the game. “We just have to polish and do our job and when all 11 players do our job and travel to football we can be very good.”
Then Missouri corrected it. The Tigers did not allow the team to score more than 26 points until Week 10 against Tennessee.
That game was a disaster. The Volunteers scored 66 points and were still over the top late in the fourth quarter with the score all but decided.
It would have been a key moment had he broken the entire unit. Instead, Baker & Co got back to work and held New Mexico State’s lead to 14 points last Saturday.
This wasn’t their best game, but the Tigers proved that the defense wouldn’t be shaken by a single negative performance.
“This game didn’t define us,” said safety Martiz Manuel. “Just like several weeks ago, K-State hasn’t made a name for us. We know what kind of defense we are.”
For his efforts this season, Baker has been rewarded. He was awarded a contract extension, bringing his total compensation to $1.4 million per year with a deal that runs through the 2025 season.
The coordinator was optimistic about the future of football in Missouri.
“I think we’re building something special here,” Baker said. “I really am. When you look at the ways we’ve lost and the points we’ve lost, man, we’re out there. So I believe in what we’re doing here.”
Isaiah McGuire, “The best defensive end in the country”
Becker’s defensive shift began on the offensive line. As mentioned earlier, the team struggled badly against the rush last year, giving up 227.4 yards per game, 124The tenth in football division.
Isaiah McGuire, a senior from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was the best running back in Missouri. He was elected team captain and represented MU at SEC Media Days in July.
When asked in Atlanta about his hopes individually this year, he swerved.
“Whatever God has got for me, that’s what I’m going to get,” said McGuire. “But everything is about helping this team win and reach its goals.”
This is McGuire’s character. He is never in a hurry when speaking, and is always measured with his words.
He had to deal with the media at inopportune times throughout the season. At one point, he was led into the press conference after three straight losses, including an overtime defeat by Auburn.
However, he never lost his temper. McGuire answered every question and ended each scrum with “God bless you” to those gathered.
But on the field, McGuire terrifies opposition crimes.
“He’s been the MVP on our defense for two years now,” said Robinson. “Like, if you watch the tape, he’s the best defensive end in the country. Like, just on the flat.”
McGuire has had an assist up front this year. Trajan Jeffcoat has been a force in the other defensive slot, helped by the likes of Robinson, Christian Williams and Josh Landry on the inside of the line.
However, McGuire, who is giving up his final season of eligibility to start his future in the NFL, was clearly the star of the show. Fans have been used to seeing his long celebration after his five sacks so far this year.
“It’s still in the distant future for me,” McGuire said of the transition to the professional level. “I just want to finish this season with my teammates.”
Linebacker Ty Ron Hooper
Coach Eli Drinkowitz has had to go gate shopping this off-season. The Tigers needed an injection of talent and their coach was determined to get it in.
He brought someone who could contribute to each situation group. Up front was Landry, along with Jayden Jernigan. In high school, Joseph Charleston joined the program from Clemson as a safety.
And at linebacker, it was Ty Ron Hooper. He was familiar with the Tigers, having played the best game of his career on the Florida Gators at Faurot Field in 2021.
“I just love this scheme,” Hooper said before returning to Florida with Missouri this year. “Honestly, I feel like they’re using me and the other players right. They’re putting us in a great position to make plays.”
Hooper has done a lot of that. He’s been all over the field.
Off the edge, he terrorized quarterbacks, grabbed 2.5 sacks and six hurries. He has also demonstrated the ability to make crucial one-on-one tackles in a running game and to show coverage skills.
Hopper is complete as it comes. According to Baker, the hardest part is figuring out the best way to use all of his talent.
“He can do it all, in my opinion,” said Becker. “But he makes it fun. She makes it fun. For me, that’s a big part of my job is making sure we put our best players in the best position to succeed. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job with that so far.”
Chris Abrams Drain and Ennis Racistro Jr.
Safety has been a known commodity for the Tigers this season. Even with the Charleston move, Martez Manuel and Jalon Carles both returned to bring continuity in the defensive backfield.
Baker’s major change to the defensive scheme was the elimination of a nickel cornerback and his replacement with a safety known as a “star”, who played a more versatile role. This position was filled by Manuel.
Question marks were out. Chris Abrams-Drain had a breakout season in 2021 as a sophomore after switching from wide receiver, but he played mostly nickels and would be out for the first time.
Ennis Rakestraw Jr. had a Something to prove too, as he recovered from a torn ACL. Both have done well this season.
Even before the Games started, Baker referred to it as a pleasant surprise.
“Obviously, not having KAD and Ennis in the spring, I didn’t know exactly what kind of guys they were,” Baker said. “They were both really impressive.”
So far this year, Rakestraw has been intercepted, while Abrams-Draine has consistently shut down some of the best receivers in the conference. The two made an intimidating combination on the outside, which helped Manuel and others focus on stopping the run.
They helped in this aspect as well. Rakestraw and Abrams-Draine are sure players.
Rakestraw in particular has shown the ability to get off a block and make background plays on screens.
“I always make them back off, that’s the number one key for me,” said Rakistraw. “But if I can shoot, I always shoot. I think I play well because I trust those 10 guys on the field with me, where if I miss a tackle, I know they’re there.”