Linebacker is simultaneously the most uncertain yet established position on Mizzou’s 2020 roster.
On one hand, there isn’t a single player on Missouri’s roster with more certainty to find himself in the starting lineup on opening weekend than Nick Bolton. On the other hand, I’m not sure there’s a single position with less certainty about who will start, and who will finish the season as the starter, than the linebacker spot opposite Bolton.
The only question about Bolton is where he’ll land among the best Mizzou defenders in the last two decades. He has a chance to join E.J. Gaines, Sean Weatherspoon and William Moore as the only Tigers defenders in the last two decades with multiple first-team All-Conference honors. He would be the first to do so in back-to-back seasons since the Tigers joined the SEC.
That’s where the certainty ends at linebacker and the questions begin. Who will start at linebacker next to Bolton? Let’s take a look at the candidates.
Cameron Wilkins was the first to replace Garrett last season, and he finished the year with two starts— including a big day at Vanderbilt. He was easily the most productive of the fill-in starters, finishing the year with 33 tackles, including four tackles-for-loss.
But then he lost his job to a true freshman in Devin Nicholson, who started the final five games of the season. He wasn’t as productive as Wilkins in that time, but it’s hard to say he was significantly less effective.
The final wrinkle came in the last game of the season when Jamal Brooks found himself getting the majority of the playing time next to Bolton, finishing the Arkansas game with seven tackles, including one tackle-for-loss.
The last name to know in this competition is Chad Bailey. He was a four-star recruit out of Texas back in 2018, but he’s played in just nine games and has yet to register a stat. He’s been hyped up plenty since arriving on campus, but he hasn’t really seen any significant playing time to back that talk up.
The Tigers never had a consistent starter next to Bolton in 2019. I would imagine that’s a top priority going into 2020. Who will it be? Your guess is as good as mine. The Tigers have a new linebackers coach with a fresh set of eyes. It’s every bit as likely to be Bailey as it is Nicholson.
If I had to give my preference, I would go with Bailey. But that’s really all about his upside based on Bailey’s recruiting ranking and hype coming out of camp. It’s hard to know how much that lines up with the reality of how he would play against SEC opponents.
Welcome to the 2020 season, where there are simply more questions than answers. At least we know Nick Bolton is awesome.