Missouri defensive line looks to overcome struggles with more complex system

Charles Harris: “Once we get that ball rolling, I feel it’s going to start clicking for everybody.”
Charles Harris practices on Aug. 25 in Columbia.

Jackie Shipp, Missouri’s defensive line coach, likens his current task to that of a marriage counselor.

The hiring of DeMontie Cross as defensive coordinator and Barry Odom’s promotion to head coach this past offseason ushered in a defensive overhaul with a new system. Thus, Shipp, who Missouri also hired during the offseason, acknowledged that it’s been a process getting his defensive linemen to adjust and genuinely buy into a new and more complicated system.

“That’s why I said I’d be a hell of a marriage counselor,” Shipp said.

The wedding between the new scheme and production, however, has yet to happen in a game. Through two games, the new system has translated to one sack and the defense giving up 191 rushing yards per game, ranked 101st in the nation.

That production will need to change if Missouri wants to upset No. 16 Georgia this Saturday.

The struggles haven’t been because of a new defensive front. The Tigers still run a base 4-3 defense with four defensive linemen and three linebackers.

Instead, complexity has contributed to the lack of production. Defensive end Charles Harris said the coaches only asked the defensive linemen to think about one or two things in previous years. Now, he said that number is at about five things, which includes reading and reacting more on first and second down and keeping better gap integrity.

“Watching the tape, those guys had the free will to just kind of go, but that’s not how we play,” Cross said.

That free will to fire off the ball and “just go” was a staple that helped earn Missouri national recognition as a school known to produce elite defensive linemen. Craig Kuligowski, the Tigers’ defensive line coach from 2001-2015, helped 24 players earn all-conference honors. NFL teams have drafted four of his defensive linemen in the first round since 2009, including Aldon Smith and Sheldon Richardson, both All-Pros.

Thus, defensive linemen who came to Missouri to be next on that long list met the new scheme with skepticism.

“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.

But Harris and his teammates realized that they had no other option but to accept the change.

“It is a matter of are you going to adjust to it, or are you going to keep fighting it?” Harris said. “So we basically came to the conclusion that we’ve got to work with it.”

And work with it they have … in practice. Harris said they’ve “got it” mentally and can run it in practice, but the translation to production in the new scheme just hasn’t happened yet in games.

Shipp said he saw improvement from the opener to last Saturday, but he is not satisfied with where they’re at.

“If I looked you in the eye and told you that, I would be lying to you,” Shipp said. “It’s not exactly what you want it to be, but it’s going to get there.”

A change in scheme isn’t the only factor that has kept the Tigers from reaching higher sack and tackles for loss totals. Cross and Shipp both voiced their dissatisfaction with missed tackles in the first two games. Cross estimated his defense gave up about 95 yards off of missed tackles against Eastern Michigan.

Missed tackles turn what could be third and long — a prime time for registering sacks — into third and short or no third downs at all.

“We have to earn the right to rush the passer, and right now, we haven’t defended the run well enough, in my opinion, to just cut it loose and go,” Cross said.

A tackling performance like the previous two weeks will prove disastrous against Georgia running back Nick Chubb.

The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 302 yards in Georgia’s first two games, the fifth most in the nation. Of those yards, 234 came after contact, according to Pro Football Focus College Football.

“You have to gang tackle Nick Chubb,” Shipp said. “You have to tackle to wrap up, you have to come with a good base, put your face on him, but the main thing is you gang tackle.”

Harris and the other Tiger defensive linemen will look to find a way to play to the speed they did last season while honoring their duties within the new system to have a chance of stopping Chubb and the Georgia offense.

That’s a wedding the Bulldogs hope to avoid attending Saturday.

“Once we get that ball rolling,” Harris said. “I feel it’s going to start clicking for everybody.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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