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Mizzou secondary mixes veteran safeties, untested corners

July 27, 2017 GMT

COLUMBIA, MO. • Missouri coach Barry Odom doesn’t hide his affection for secondary coach Ryan Walters, whose assortment of responsibilities grows by the year at Mizzou.

Odom reunited with Walters in 2015 when Tigers coach Gary Pinkel hired Walters to lead the team’s safeties. Odom was already on staff as Pinkel’s defensive coordinator and clearly had input in Walters’ addition. Odom and Walters first crossed paths in 2010 when Walters was a graduate assistant at Arizona. They coached together at Memphis four years later.

When Odom replaced Pinkel as head coach after the 2015 season, there was never a doubt he’d retain Walters on staff. For the 2016 season Odom made Walters his co-defensive coordinator. This past offseason Odom shifted his role again, putting Walters in charge of the entire secondary after cornerbacks coach Greg Brown left for Auburn.

Odom believes the 31-year-old Walters has the chops to be a head coach some day. He’ll be tested this fall leading a mix of veterans and underclassmen in a secondary that must improve on his watch.

After a few weeks of adjustment, players warmed up to Walters’ expanded role.

“I was a little timid about it at first, going from having a coach during film (study) that could concentrate on two corners to covering the whole secondary, whether that’s two safeties, two corners and a nickel or just four people on the field,” senior cornerback Logan Cheadle said during spring practices. “I was a little worried, but it’s been great. We’ve all been on the same page. We’re hearing the same thing in the same room so when we get on the field it’s easy for us to communicate with the safeties.”

“There’s not a lot of variance of what they’re being taught, what they’re being asked,” defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross added. “Coach Walters is a veteran in this scheme and what we’re trying to do.”

Between Mizzou’s safeties and cornerbacks Walters faces two different challenges. At safety, the Tigers return four players with significant game experience, led by senior Anthony Sherrils, a multiyear starter who’s listed as the No. 1 strong safety heading into preseason camp, which begins Tuesday. Walters will have to find the right combinations among Sherrils, senior Thomas Wilson, junior Cam Hilton (Webster Groves) and sophomore Ronnell Perkins (University City), who have combined to make 37 starts, 20 by Sherrils. Perkins opens camp as the No. 1 free safety with Hilton as the top backup. All four figure to play and could see their roles change in different substitution packages. Perkins, the youngest of the four, was the most physical and consistent tackler of the group last year.

At cornerback, Walters doesn’t have the luxury of game experience. The Tigers must replace 2016 seniors Aarion Penton, a first-team All-SEC choice by the league coaches, and John Gibson, who combined for eight of the team’s 15 interceptions last year. Sophomores DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes begin camp as the starters after playing mostly on special teams last year. Acy started in place of Penton at Louisiana State last season. Both projected starters are 6-foot-1, fitting the profile for the taller, rangy players Odom’s staff wants for the position.

Acy “has got the ability to match up with the bigger, elite receivers we see in this league,” Cross said. “He’s a guy that has to play like a veteran.”

Cheadle, shorter at 5-10, will compete for a job in the secondary after missing parts of last season with an ankle injury. Freshman Terry Petry (6-1) and Adam Sparks (6-0) reflect the team’s push for taller cornerbacks and could factor into the mix.

Odom’s staff worked to replenish the secondary with this year’s recruiting class and signed three safeties who could land special teams roles this year and perhaps push the veterans for playing time: Joshuah Bledsoe, Tyree Gillespie and Jordan Ulmer.

THREE MORE PLEDGES

Mizzou has tripled its verbal commitments since the start of July and added three more three-star pledges Wednesday from Tyrus Wheat, a safety/outside linebacker from Amite, La., Mike Ruth, an offensive tackle from Coppell, Texas, and La’Dedric Jackson, a linebacker from Montgomery, Ala.

Jackson, MU’s third player from Alabama among its 13 commitments for 2018, trimmed his school choices in April to Mizzou, Louisiana State, North Carolina State, Ole Miss and Tennessee. Jackson attends Sidney Lanier High School, the same as quarterback James Foster, another Mizzou commitment.

Ruth, listed as 6-7 and 303 pounds, played right tackle as a junior at Coppell High School and also holds offers from power conference schools Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas State, Miami, Syracuse, Texas Tech and Vanderbilt. Coppell is the first offensive lineman for Missouri’s 2018 class and the sixth commitment from Texas.

Missouri has added nine commitments since July 4, including eight since last Friday.

HOWARD CASE

PUSHED BACK

Missouri defensive end Nate Howard was granted a continuance in his felony drug case on Wednesday in Boone County Circuit Court. Scheduled to appear for a plea hearing in front of Judge William Bradley, Howard was represented by his attorney Chris Slusher, who told the court the county prosecutor asked Tuesday to push the case back. The prosecution agreed to schedule a status review for Aug. 2 when both sides will revisit the case.

Howard, a former All-Metro standout at Ladue High School, was arrested June 14 in Columbia on suspicion of possession of a controlled substance and suspicion of marijuana possession when police found illegal mushrooms and marijuana in the vehicle he was driving. Howard was charged with a class D felony for possession of a controlled substance and pleaded not guilty earlier this month. He’s been suspended indefinitely by the football program.