Mizzou football team's defensive line could hinge on Johnny Walker's emergence

COLUMBIA, Mo. — As Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz and his three players toured through Nashville’s Grand Hyatt for last week’s Southeastern Conference media days, one name came up in interview after interview when inquiries surfaced about the Tigers’ biggest question mark on defense.
“I really like the way that Johnny Walker has really attacked his opportunity at the defensive end position,” Drinkwitz said.
Johnny Walker,” senior defensive lineman Darius Robinson echoed, “he stands out to me the most because he’s really waited his time.”
With All-SEC edge rusher Isaiah McGuire now with the Cleveland Browns, there’s no time like the present for Walker to deliver a breakthrough season for a defense loaded with depth and experience at every other position.
But not defensive end. The Tigers return only one full-time scholarship defensive end who appeared in games last season. That would be Walker, the junior from Tampa, Florida, who played only 113 defensive snaps, 56 coming against Wake Forest in the Gasparilla Bowl, for which the team’s top three defensive ends all sat out. McGuire and D.J. Coleman were prepping for the NFL draft — McGuire was a fourth-round selection to Cleveland; Coleman signed with Jacksonville — while Trajan Jeffcoat would later transfer to Arkansas.
As the Tigers prepare for the start of preseason camp next week, their depth along the interior of the D-line creates a solution for the shortage of experience on the edge. Robinson, a third-team preseason All-SEC selection, will play both his natural defensive tackle position and shift outside to defensive end for certain matchups, complementing Walker’s upside on the edge.
“That’s the plan,” Drinkwitz said. “(Robinson) played that position all spring and has been working there all summer, sliding out at the edge. The thing about Darius is he’s got position flexibility. He’s got the ability to play both on the outside and at the inside. It’s really going to be about week-to-week matchups where we feel like he can best affect the lines of scrimmage. And, obviously, Johnny Walker has done a really good job.”
As for the rest of the line, the Tigers return five interchangeable upperclassmen inside who should share reps at the two tackle positions: Robinson, who posted career-high totals for pressures (19), hurries (10) and sacks (3.5) last season; former Oregon transfer Kristian Williams, one of the best surprises of last season; former Oklahoma State transfer Jayden Jernigan, another tackle with the pass-rush skills to line up outside; former Baylor transfer Josh Landry; and Realus George Jr., who began his college career as a fullback at Miami.
Robinson and George rate as two of the SEC’s highest-graded returning defensive linemen by Pro Football Focus. Robinson has drawn considerable interest from the Senior Bowl, the most prestigious postseason showcase event for NFL prospects. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy tweeted last week that Robinson “has every measurable ... but more importantly he plays big and long at (the point of attack). To that point, he gets rid of blockers as well as any DL we’ve seen in 2024 draft class.”
“I’ve always heard,” Drinkwitz said, “that to be good on defense you’ve got to be strong up the middle.”
If there are any leftover snaps, redshirt freshmen Marquis Gracial and Jalen Marshall are two promising underclassmen, while sophomore Ky Montgomery, troubled by injuries the last two years, could supply depth, too.
“We have a lot of seniors in our room, but also, that provides opportunity to learn from experience by watching tape together and doing drills together,” Robinson said. “That translates for your personal development. At the end of the day, it’s all about individual growth. As long as you’re growing as a player and getting better, that’s all (the underclassmen) can do. And I think they’re doing a great job with that so far.”
There’s less proven talent on the edge. Walker, up from 245 pounds to 262, is running faster than ever, Drinkwitz said, and looks to carry over late-season production into a more prominent role. The transfer portal supplied more contenders, starting with former Arizona State starter and St. Louis native Joe Moore, son of Mizzou’s former running back standout by the same name.
Nyles Gaddy, a former walk-on at Tennessee, spent the two years at Jackson State, piling up 77 pressures off the edge. Austin Firestone joined Mizzou after a year at Northwestern, while walk-on transfer Ben Straatmann was a Division II All-American at Missouri S&T. Also, the Tigers moved redshirt freshman D.J. Wesolak from linebacker to defensive end, his natural position.
“Defensive edge is probably the position we have the biggest question marks on our defense but feel like we’ve answered those questions,” Drinkwitz said. “Johnny Walker, who has been with our program going on four years (and) was in that initial recruiting class that I’ve had, has really bought into Coach (Ryan) Russell’s strength program and Liz Stuart’s nutrition program. Has done an excellent job at adding weight ... and is the fastest he’s been.”
When camp kicks off next week, Walker might be the long-term answer to the rare question facing a defense that carries enormous expectations into the season.

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