If you asked someone in 2011 to guess which SEC East program would run the division in 2013 and 2014 with excellent defensive lines that produced multiple NFL players, Missouri wouldn't have been high on that list.
Nevertheless, that's exactly what happened. Players like Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray took their turns in a DL tradition that also features first-round picks like Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson and Ziggy Hood.
As coordinator, Dave Steckel built strong defenses on the backs of those lines -- the Tigers have finished 31st or better in Defensive S&P+ in each of the last five years. The Tigers have rarely had enough great athletes on the back end to build elite defenses, but when paired with Gary Pinkel's spread offenses, they were effective enough to appear in the SEC title game in back-to-back seasons.
Now Steckel is gone, hired as the head man at Missouri State. Pinkel turned to Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom, a Missouri alum who grew up as an assistant under Pinkel before leaving to become a DC in 2012. In 2014, Odom's defense ranked No. 27 in S&P, fourth among non-powers.
He returns to join the man responsible for coaching up the Tigers' great talents: defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, whom Mizzou was able to keep from leaving for a co-DC job at Illinois.
The hope would be that Odom can elevate the recruiting and development in the backfield from good to great, while continuing to get the most from the line. There are some changes coming in the backfield, with a new safeties coach and a shift toward a soft, pattern-matching style in place of Steckel's Tampa 2.
However, the main change is up front, where Odom is incorporating 3-4 principles alongside the 4-3 that has defined the team.
The Missouri 4-3
The defensive ends were a big part of the Steckel defense. The position was a revolving door of pass-rushing talent over the last two years.
They had a breakthrough in 2013 when a foursome that included second-round pick Ealy, co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year Sam, Golden and Ray combined for 55 tackles for loss and 30.5 sacks. In 2014, Missouri called on Golden and Ray to take over. The results were incredible. They surpassed their predecessors and produced 42.5 tackles for loss and 23 sacks by themselves.
Steckel's methods included both under- and over-shifted fronts, with the over defining more of the philosophy. He had the DEs lining up as right or left no matter the strength of the offensive formation, thus changing whether Mizzou was playing a strongside or weakside technique. They'd set the better pass rusher to the right so that he could take more blindside shots at right-handed QBs.
The entire front would play aggressive, looking to get into the backfield and relying on the zone eyes of the defenders behind them to clean up anything that got through. This style made them vulnerable to giving up ground, but as long as they didn't allow big gains, the disruption could kill drives.
Kuligowski did a great job finding athletes to develop, then unchaining them in aggressive schemes. But things are about to change.
Barry Odom's 3-4
Odom's Memphis 3-4 was not the kind of two-gapping style that would make for a polar opposite to Steckel's 4-3, but there will be some degree of shift from one scheme to another. While Steckel would set his defensive ends as left or right, Odom's Memphis played only one true pass-rushing DE on the field at a time, at a weakside end/linebacker hybrid position. He lined up a true linebacker as the strongside on the opposite end.
Rather than lining up right or left, the weakside end would line up to the boundary (short side) while the sam linebacker would line up to the field (wide side).
The positions are different than the 4-3 over style that Missouri has been playing, but the difference is essentially the difference between the under and over schools of defense. Odom's players still used single-gap techniques. You could describe this as a 3-4 under defense.
Odom used 3-4 personnel at Memphis in order to bring confusion and disguise. He played three true linemen: the strongside end, nose tackle and three-technique tackle. The latter's job was to slant, stunt and occupy gaps in the middle while the four linebackers traded off filling the strongside, middle and weakside linebacker positions and weakside defensive end position.
Each player would have a primary role but would also be called upon to fill others. The three linemen needed to be capable of playing each other's inside techniques, and each of the four linebackers could play multiple roles.
So on a standard play with no stunting, this would play out as a typical 4-3 under front, a style of defense that combines one true pass-rushing defensive end with three bigger linemen:
Why would Odom use 3-4 personnel with a hybrid lined up on the boundary? To enable his team to drop eight into coverage and rush only three, a useful tactic against spread option teams that don't allow time to rush the passer, or to mix up which linebackers fill which roles.
Since Memphis wasn't blessed with an abundance of pass-rushing linemen, disguised blitzes that mixed up who played where were useful for getting pressure:
The key with this style is having linemen who can slant and occupy blockers. You also need versatile linebackers who can cover, blitz, and play the run. It's not a system for unleashing powerful athletes, but rather one for weaponizing smaller ones.
Will it work?
If Golden and Ray were returning, this would not be the ideal scheme. Odom would face the need for major tweaks to what he did in Memphis. However, both leave a thinner depth chart than in recent years: Of last year's tackles for loss leaders, the top four are gone.
The next wave of Mizzou Tigers is likely to fit Odom's designs. Incoming five-star freshman Terry Beckner Jr. is a 6'4, 293-pounder who'd be perfect as either the strongside end or three-technique tackle, where he could help anchor against the run but also slant and stunt and generate pressure inside. JUCO transfer Marcell Frazier is more of a 4-3 end, but there'd still be room in a 3-4 for his type as the hybrid DE/LB.
Among current players, 6'3, 290-pound Harold Brantley "is basically custom made for the inside-or-outsi
The transition may be slow and steady. But Odom will likely build the type of hybrid front he had at Memphis and restock the roster with versatile linebackers who can try to match the production Kuligowski gets from his ends.
The fear for Missouri fans has to be that a full transition would be a needlessly complicated approach in lieu of what Kuligowski and the Missouri recruiting base were able to do in the Steckel defense. But this is a proven strategy in today's game. If Pinkel's reworked staff can make it come together, the Tigers might extend their streak before Florida head coach Jim McElwain and Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt help get their programs back on track in the SEC East.