Chad Bailey didn’t want to give a full answer to the question.
After Missouri’s first preseason camp practice of 2022, the linebacker stood behind the podium for a moment after being asked how he would describe new defensive coordinator Blake Baker’s scheme.
Not wanting to give up any strategic advantages, Bailey looked to the Tigers’ public relations representative for help. Eventually, he cautiously responded.
“We’re going to stop the run and we’re going to stop the pass,” Bailey said. “That’s what I would tell you.”
He was being coy in front of media members, but if Bailey’s words come to fruition, it could be a marked improvement for the Tigers in 2022.
Last season, the team wasn’t terrible against the pass, finishing fifth in the conference. Against the run, however, Missouri finished dead last in the SEC and 124th nationally, allowing 227.4 yards per game on the ground.
When other teams played the Tigers, they averaged 33.8 points per game, which placed Missouri 13th in the conference. Steve Wilks left for the pros after the season, putting Eli Drinkwitz in a position to hire his fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons as a head coach at both Missouri and Appalachian State.
He came to the Tigers as a safety coach in January before Drinkwitz promoted him to defensive coordinator in February, elevating him to a position he previously held at Miami and Louisiana Tech.
Baker plans on maintaining the same 4-2-5 scheme that Wilks ran. However, he’ll run with a third safety, replacing one of the cornerbacks.
Some of the team’s veteran players weren’t overly concerned about the change, due in part to how adapted to shifts they are.
"I feel like it was pretty easy for us to pick up this one because we already had to learn a new one,” Bailey said. “We knew how to transition and learn another playbook. I don’t think it’s gotten any harder or anything.”
Baker has maintained his position coaching safeties along with his DC responsibilities. The safety group includes some solid players, including returning starters Martez Manuel and JC Carlies.
Manuel returned to action for preseason camp, his first on-field appearance since the 2021 season. He missed the Armed Forces Bowl to end last year with an ankle injury, then was forced out of spring practice with an elbow injury.
The safeties will need to be on their game this season, given some of the quality quarterbacks Missouri will face, including Hendon Hooker at Tennessee and Will Levis at Kentucky.
According to Manuel, Baker will have the group ready.
“He’s done a good job,” Manuel said. “I didn’t really get to practice with him in the spring so I’m looking forward to (camp), just to get to see how he coaches and how he’s going to coach me and what he can teach me.”
The team’s cornerback core will be bolstered by Ennis Rakestraw’s return from injury. He will likely join Kris Abrams-Draine, who had a solid season in 2021, on the outside.
Another position of strength for the Tigers will be at defensive end. MU has a pair of talents on each edge in Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat.
That group has a new leader after Jethro Franklin was fired from his defensive line coach position following Missouri’s blowout loss to Tennessee last season. The responsibilities have been split up for 2022, with Al Davis in charge of the interior linemen and Kevin Peoples taking over the ends.
Peoples acknowledged his group will need to take a step forward if the Tigers are going to be successful.
“We have to be reasons why this football team wins games,” Peoples said. “We’re going to have to make some plays that are the reason why we win games. We’re going to have to have a sack, cause a fumble. We’re going to have to harass the quarterback."
The challenge for the entire defensive line will be to look more like the unit that finished 2021 than the one that existed before Davis took over midseason for Franklin. The Tigers allowed 283 rushing yards per game through the first eight matchups, but cut it to an average of 139 for the final five with Davis at the helm.
Missouri will be aided by the amount of returning talent on the roster. Nine defensive players with more than six career starts are back, which should give the Tigers a leg up as they try and improve despite a tough schedule.
They’ll also have newcomers across the board after Drinkwitz and Co. worked the transfer portal to bring in help like defensive end Tyron Hopper and his cousin Ty’Ron, a linebacker.
According to McGuire, speaking at SEC Media Days, the wealth of returnees can help the new faces acclimate.
"We got really good depth,” McGuire said. “There’s definitely experienced guys on our defensive line, there’s players that haven’t got that experience, but us guys that are actually experienced with playing college football at the highest level, it’s our job to help them, mentor them.”
Having the strong defensive line has the potential to help out the linebacking core, which includes Bailey, as well as Ty’Ron Hopper and Devin Nicholson, among others.
“It helps to keep the double-teams off,” Bailey said. “They want the linebackers to play free and they want the D-line to eat up the blocks, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Improving the defense won’t be an easy feat this season. The Tigers have a tough schedule, as usual in the SEC.
However, if they can manage to look more like the defense that was taking the field later in 2021, it would be a major boost to a team that seems to have the offensive talent needed to get ahead.
Matt Stahl is the Missouri athletics beat reporter for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @mattstahl97.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: Mizzou football's defense looks to improve under Blake Baker