Perhaps more than any other position, there is uncertainty for the Missouri Tigers’ defensive backs heading into 2014. Mizzou will need to replace three of their four starters, including star corner E.J. Gaines, who was a big presence in the Tiger defensive backfield for years and was drafted by the St. Louis Rams last month.
Strong safety Braylon Webb will be the only returning player in the defensive backfield. The 6-foot, 205-pound redshirt senior was the Tigers’ second-leading tackler a year ago, picking up 89 total takedowns. He also had three interceptions and seven pass breakups. Hopefully, Webb’s experience as a multi-year starter will be helpful to his greener fellow DBs.
Ian Simon will be looked upon to fill the starting free safety position after serving as the Tigers’ nickelback in 2013. The redshirt junior, who picked up 42 total tackles with an impressive 3.5 tackles for loss, an interception, and five pass breakups, will attempt to establish himself as a steady replacement for the graduated Matt White.
The Tigers’ most important asset at cornerback should be sophomore Aarion Penton. As a true freshman, the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder got some solid playing time and started twice in relief of Gaines. He had an interception, a pass breakup, and 16 total tackles on the year. There will be questions about Penton’s availability to begin the year, however. He was arrested in March along with three other Mizzou athletes on suspicion of marijuana possession. This means that it’s possible that Penton could be suspended to start the regular season, which would open up a starting spot for another player.
The other starting corner is expected to be 6-foot, 185-pound redshirt sophomore John Gibson. He got increased playing time as the season went on in 2013, and finished with a solid 14 tackles, three pass breakups and an interception. His height would provide a nice complement to the undersized Penton, who could face challenges in covering bigger receivers.
One player who will push for playing time and could have an edge for the Tigers’ nickelback spot is 5-foot-11, 190-pound redshirt junior David Johnson. Johnson has long been seen as an intriguing prospect and has continued to make strides, having broken in as a regular special teamer in 2013.
A darkhorse for significant playing time out of the defensive backfield could be 6-foot, 200-pound cornerback Kenya Dennis, a junior college transfer who joined the Tigers this spring. His size and physicality will certainly help him out in a position group where there are only a few players over 200 pounds.
The biggest contender to push the starters for playing time at safety will be 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior Duron Singleton, who came to Mizzou as a junior college transfer prior to 2013. He contributed on special teams and got some time from scrimmage a year ago, picking up 23 tackles. Though he’s a pure strong safety, it’s possible that he could fit into the starting lineup if the Tigers would move Webb back to his former position of free safety.
The listed backup at free safety is redshirt junior Cortland Browning. Though he only picked up five tackles as a special teamer in 2013, it’s apparent that the Tigers are intrigued by him as a player, and he should figure to get at least a bit of action from scrimmage this year.
Anthony Sherrils, a 6-foot, 190-pounder coming off a redshirt year, moved from corner to safety during spring workouts and could be a special teams contributor this year. Other safeties listed on the roster are redshirt sophomores Chaston Ward, Michael Godas, and Brock Bondurant, a walk-on who previously was a quarterback, as well as redshirt freshman Shaun Rupert. Additional corners are junior DeAndre McKenzie, a Missouri Southern transfer, and walk-ons Jordan Wade and Mubarak Nasiruddin.
Cornerback Logan Cheadle, a 2014 recruit, graduated early and joined the Tigers for spring workouts. Joining him in the fall will be corners Raymond Wingo and Finis Stribling, safety Tavon Ross, billed as a hard hitter, and safety Greg Taylor, an East St. Louis high school product. With as highly-regarded of a recruit as Wingo was, don’t discount the possibility that he could establish himself during fall practices and get significant playing time, just as Penton did as a true freshman a year ago.