“Ah!” Ronnell Perkins exclaimed with a smile.
The junior paused for three seconds as he contemplated his preferred position: linebacker or safety. Finally, he broke the silence.
“Safety,” Perkins said. “I don’t know. I think to pick off the ball, you know — I like to hit people, too, so lineb… — both of them!”
Perkins played safety for the Tigers in 2017 but switched to strongside, or SAM, linebacker in the spring. Early in fall camp, he is listed as the backup to Brandon Lee.
Conversely, sophomore Joshuah Bledsoe switched to safety in the spring after playing SAM the previous season. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Missouri decided to switch both players’ positions based on observations from last season and early in spring camp.
“Josh played safety in high school a lot,” Walters said. “Body type-wise and range, all that kind of stuff, it felt like those two would be more comfortable in those areas and it shows. Josh has made more plays at safety, and Ronnell has made more plays at SAM.”
Walters said the Tigers moved Perkins to SAM because his lateral quickness and physicality are better suited for a role close to the line of scrimmage. However, the strongside position involves more pass coverage than the middle (MIKE) or weakside (WILL) linebacker does. The SAM is often charged with covering an opponent’s slot receivers or tight ends.
Perkins’ experience at strong safety eased his transition to SAM because the two positions communicate frequently on the field.
“It wasn’t that much of a learning curve because he was so in tune with what they were doing anyways,” Walters said. “I’ve been really pleased with the progress he’s made. He only had like three practices there in the springtime, so for him to be where he’s at right now is pretty impressive.”
“At the very least, I wanted to get (Perkins) in my room so he could learn more football rather than just safety,” outside linebackers coach Brian Odom added. “His knowledge of what’s going on with our defense has grown and grown since the spring, through the summer and now into camp. The guy knows what he’s doing. He’s a savvy player. He’s really good in short spaces and he’s got a knack for getting to the ball.”
“… I feel good about Perkins. He’s done a great job and that’s a credit to nobody else but Perkins and to what kind of person he is.”
As a backup safety — albeit with six spot starts sprinkled in — through his first two seasons as a Tiger, Perkins couldn’t show off his physical side very often. In 2017, he recorded 27 total tackles, including one for a loss. Now, he’s itching to show he can blow up the backfield on game days.
“I love blitzing,” Perkins said. “I’m looking for the first sack, man. I still ain’t got it. I need it, I need it.”
Bledsoe, in his time at strongside linebacker, did get to the quarterback for a sack last season, but he’ll be blitzing a lot less in 2018 now that he’s listed as the team’s starting strong safety. In high school, he played safety, but he switched to SAM upon arrival at Missouri because could contribute immediately as a linebacker. He considers safety his natural position.
“I feel more free and more myself,” Bledsoe said.
Bledsoe saw action at safety for a few snaps during early downs last season, but received most his playing time in man-to-man coverage in dime packages on third down. He said switching back to the secondary gives him an advantage because he knows where the SAM is supposed to be, allowing him to play faster at safety.
“We knew he had the cover skillset,” Walters said. “So we just looked at him making open-field tackles and understanding the game. We tried him out there in the spring and it looked real natural for him.”
Bledsoe and Perkins have exchanged learning points since the position swap. Perkins tells Bledsoe to “play smart and be patient” when he’s roaming the defensive backfield. Bledsoe reminds Perkins to stay physical at the line of scrimmage.
Adjusting to a new position in practice is easier than adjusting to it in a game, but their coaches believe Perkins and Bledsoe are preparing themselves to succeed this season.
And if the swap goes as planned, perhaps Perkins will have found a new favorite position.
Supervising editors are Michael Knisley and Eric Lee.