Missouri's defensive growth will be key to Tigers' season

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Sean Weatherspoon has given up watching many of his favorite television shows and video games since arriving at college.

The Missouri linebacker is spending his time in more gainful pursuits than the latest "Cribs" episode or checking out the latest version of "NCAA Football" quite as often.

"Just say I've been watching a lot of game film," Weatherspoon said. "It's been something I've gotten into the last year ... seeing how other teams are doing things."

A portable DVD player enables Weatherspoon to take film home with him nearly every night. It's helped him to progress from a lightly-regarded prospect coming out of Jasper (Texas) High School into a consensus preseason all-conference selection at linebacker.

His dedication has matched the development of his team's defense, which grew after early struggles last season to one of the Tigers' biggest strengths by the time the season ended.

"We're all learning as we go," Weatherspoon said. "We're trying to become students of the game."

And with 10 defensive starters returning from that team, Missouri will have the most experienced returning unit in the conference. Continued growth is one of the biggest reasons many are picking the Tigers as contenders for their first Big 12 championship.

Offense helped fuel the program's recent growth behind Heisman Trophy contenders like quarterback Chase Daniel and all-everything receiver/returner Jeremy Maclin. But the defense will have to emerge this season in order to sustain the momentum of last season's 12-2 record, capped by a Cotton Bowl victory over Arkansas.

"We had some success last season, but we'd like some more," Weatherspoon said. "We realize we were very close last year. With continued improvement, we think we still have a lot more in front of us."

Their first test comes Saturday night in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, where the Tigers will be looking for some revenge against an Illinois team that flustered them last season before falling in a wild 40-34 shootout.

The Tigers came through with several big plays that marked that triumph. Pig Brown recovered a fumble in the end zone and returned it 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter. And Brown preserved the triumph with a goal-line interception in the final minute to nail down the victory.

But in between, the Tigers struggled, allowing 23 first downs, 435 total yards and a staggering 5.9 yards per snap.

"It wasn't one of our better performances, but we learned from it," Weatherspoon said. "Just being able to win that game reinforced some things for us."

Such an early malaise wasn't unexpected for veteran Missouri defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who knew his team would learn as it went last season.

"We had six new starters and knew it would take some time before we clicked," Eberflus said. "I thought we had some good players, but they just had limited experience. Then, they started playing together and it just took off for them. We were patient and positive and then, they started to jell."

After allowing 534 yards against Mississippi in their next game, the Tigers gradually progressed, holding their next eight opponents to less than 400 yards.

"They just got better and better," coach Gary Pinkel said. "There's some talent there, they just needed the experience. And by the end of the year, we were a pretty darn good defense."

The group particularly progressed during Big 12 play, allowing the fewest yards of any team in conference play. The Tigers also were among the top three in points allowed, pass defense, pass efficiency defense and rushing defense.

The Tigers lose only NT Lorenzo Williams and Brown, who missed the second half of the season with an Achilles' injury, from that team.

All three of the defensive juniors who submitted their names for the NFL draft -- DE Stryker Sulak, DT Ziggy Hood and S William Moore -- returned for their senior season.

"There's a growing confidence with all of those guys back," Weatherspoon said. "We all wanted to keep playing together and seeing what we could accomplish."

The unit's development has frustrated Daniel in several scrimmages. But he realizes that growth will make the Tigers a more complete team.

"It takes a tremendous pressure off of us," Daniel said. "Last year and two years ago, we thought we had to score every single time we had the ball. But now [we realize] we don't have to go out and score 40 points every game. We can win the 21-14 games if need be."