As they prepare to face Oklahoma, the Missouri Tigers know they have to get better on defense. The toughest aspect is that they will have to do it without perhaps their best defensive player. Defensive end Brian Smith broke his hip against Kansas State and will miss the rest of the regular season.
"You don't replace a player like Smitty," said defensive lineman DeMarcus Scott.
Smith was among the national leaders with 7.5 sacks this season and was just three short of the all-time Big 12 career record. But Missouri will miss more than his contributions in the pass rush.
"We lose a lot. Great athlete with a lot of heart," said Xzavie Jackson, a senior starter at the other defensive end spot. "Great pass rusher, stuff like that, but the heart is what brings it to us. His fight on the field is what brings it to us. His heart is a great asset and we're losing a big part of our defense."
In Smith's place will be sophomore Stryker Sulak. Sulak started four games last season and one while Jackson was suspended this year.
"He's a real good football player," Gary Pinkel said of Sulak. "He's got good speed, he can run. I think we're real fortunate to have a guy like that we can move over there."
The onus of replacing Smith will not fall on the defensive line alone.
"Everybody's going to have to step it up a little bit more, not just the defensive line, but the entire defense," Pinkel said. "You lose a guy like Smitty, everybody's got to do more--linebackers got to play better, safeties got to play better, corners got to play better and the offense got to play better. You lose a great player like that, that's how you have to deal with that."
The linebackers have been solid for Missouri much of the season. Marcus Bacon is having an all-conference season, ranking fourth in the league in tackles, ninth in fumble recoveries and third in forced fumbles. Dedrick Harrington is second on the team in tackles at middle linebacker and is also having his best year as a Tiger. Brock Christopher is the third starter and is fourth on the team in tackles.
The last few weeks, the Tiger defense has slipped from the top five all the way down to 36th against the run. Colorado ran the ball well against Mizzou. Texas A&M and Kansas State have each run for well over 200 yards in the last two games.
"We do need to get a lot better on it," Sulak said. "Last week we let up and we're going to work on that this week starting Tuesday practice, we want to stop the run. That's something you've got to do in this league."
"To sit there and say that we've got a great run defense would not be right," Pinkel said. "We're going to work real hard at improving it. We can certainly get better at it and we're gonna have to be if we want to accomplish our goals."
The run defense has slipped a little while the pass defense improved greatly last week. After allowing A&M quarterback Stephen McGee to complete 18-of-22 passes, Missouri held K-State quarterbacks to 5-for-20 for 63 yards last week. KSU did not complete a second half pass to a Wildcat receiver, though Missouri did intercept Josh Freeman on back-to-back plays.
Leading the effort is current Big 12 defensive player of the week David Overstreet. The senior captain had nine tackles, a pass breakup and a fumble return for a touchdown last week. Starting opposite Overstreet is sophomore William Moore, who returned a pick for a TD at Texas Tech. Missouri also gets Brandon Massey back from a one-game suspension to help the depth at safety.
At cornerback, Darnell Terrell has been strong all season. Outside of Tech, no one has really thrown at Terrell this season. He had his first interception last week. With Domonique Johnson and Trenile Washington unlikely to play because of injury, the Tigers are still without two of their top three corners from the pre-season. Redshirt freshman Hardy Ricks starts opposite Terrell.