Defensive line improves after slow start to season

Defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross: “When you see guys believe in their structure and their plays and what they’re supposed to do within calls, it all works.”
Coach Barry Odom talks with the team before the Tigers take the field for this week’s home game facing the Delaware State Hornets. The game ended with a 79-0 win for Missouri, bringing up the Tigers’ season record to 2-2.

Two weeks ago, Missouri’s defensive line was in disarray.

The Tigers’ feared defensive line appeared toothless in its first two games, recording only one sack and 10 tackles for loss in Missouri’s first two games. Charles Harris, who was a member of the preseason all-Southeastern Conference second team, had only five tackles, none of which were sacks.

Then came the assistant coaches media day after the Eastern Michigan game.

Defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross was not shy in showing his frustration to reporters two weeks ago, calling his players’ commitment into question.

“The commitment has got to be there,” Cross said on Sept. 13. “It’s just the commitment. There’s sometimes there is a full commitment to [the scheme], and there are other times they deviate.”

Meanwhile, only a few steps from where Cross was being interviewed, Harris expressed his frustration with the system switch.

“Not to say anything bad, but whenever you change something that’s been working so well, when you change it, it is frustrating for anybody,” Harris said.

The discord came while the Tigers were preparing for the Georgia Bulldogs. More precisely, the Tigers were preparing to stop Nick Chubb, one of the nation’s top running backs.

Early on, the Tigers were successful in stopping Chubb. However, Georgia quarterback Jacob Eason remained upright in the pocket through the first quarter and gave the Bulldogs an early 14-10 lead with 13 minutes left in the second quarter.

Then, the system clicked.

On Georgia’s following possession, Harris flew off the line of scrimmage, went straight around Georgia lineman Tyler Catalina and crushed Eason on a backside sack. He celebrated by high-stepping toward the Missouri sideline and pounding his chest.

It was at that point that the floodgates opened.

The defensive line put Eason under siege, finishing the game with four sacks and seven tackles for loss. Harris was responsible for three of the Tiger sacks and finished the game with seven tackles.

Just like that, Missouri’s vaunted defensive line was back in business. The turning point came when its leader finally lived up to the lofty expectations set before the season.

“Sometimes I don’t know if [Harris] recognizes how much of an emotional leader he is,” Cross said Sept. 19. “He really is kind of the pulse and the heartbeat of what we do because he creates havoc up there, and we’re trying to get the rest of the D-line to contribute and be that way as well.”

Missouri’s front seven took after Harris’ performance against Georgia on Saturday against Delaware State. While Harris only finished with one tackle, the Tiger front seven finished with three sacks and two fumble recoveries.

“We’re really starting to trust each other,” Michael Scherer said. “We didn’t trust each other or the defense at the beginning of the year.”

Statistically, Missouri’s defense has been astronomically better since the defensive line broke out of its slump against Georgia. In the first two games, the Tiger defense allowed an average of 461 total yards to opposing offenses. Since then, Missouri is only giving up an average of 275 total yards.

A major key to Missouri’s improvement stems from the interior of the defensive line. More specifically, it stems from the performance of Terry Beckner Jr.

Although Beckner has not started a game yet this year, he leads the defensive line in tackles and has a fumble recovery to his name.

“[Beckner] puts a lot on himself,” head coach Barry Odom said after the Delaware State game. “He expects to be great. I’m hesitant to use that word too many times but I’ve got the same expectations for him.”

Like the rest of the defensive line, Beckner came on in the previous two games after struggling in the season’s early stages. In his last two games, Beckner had seven tackles, including one for loss.

“It was just brand new and people were adjusting to it,” Beckner said Saturday in reference to the defense. “Everybody is adjusted to it now. It just comes with playing ball.”

With Beckner giving a solid push up the middle, opposing quarterbacks are forced to step back, allowing Missouri’s defensive ends to get around the outside for the sack. The Tiger defensive ends are responsible for five of Missouri’s eight sacks.

The Tiger defensive line regained its identity just in time for its trip down to Louisiana State. The Tiger front seven will go up against another top running back, Leonard Fournette, and will be tested by an experienced LSU offensive line.

“We’ve adapted to the new defense,” Scherer said. “We trust it and we see that when we do the right things, we make plays and we’re just communicating better and playing as a team better.”

Edited by Sherell Barbee | sbarbee@themaneater.com

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