COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Gary Pinkel wasn't in a surly mood after Friday's practice on Faurot Field, but he declined to answer one question.
He just couldn't.
Asked about the competition for MU's secondary spots this year compared to the past two, Pinkel was at a loss for words.
"We didn't have any before, and now we do," he said. "So that's a start."
The fact that most spots on the defense are up for grabs between highly recruited players is an encouraging sign for a defense that surrendered a school-record 3,391 passing yards last season.
On Friday, rover Dedrick Harrington intercepted a deflected Brad Smith pass just a few plays before free safety Nino Williams dived to pick one off.
"We're definitely bigger, stronger and quicker," safety Jason Simpson said. "It's really going to help as long as we get our fundamentals down during practice. "
When the Tigers held their first morning practice of the preseason Saturday, the defense's best battle resumed in the secondary. At free safety -- a position where Missouri has been without a consistent playmaker since Harold Piersey roamed the secondary during the bowl years of 1997-98 -- Williams is fighting off David Overstreet, who continues to impress since moving from quarterback last spring.
After the team's first scrimmage on Tuesday, Pinkel's staff will rank the top 10 players among the five secondary positions, and if any backups -- such as Overstreet -- rank higher than a starter at another position, they'll consider a change.
That's a luxury Pinkel didn't have two years ago or even last season.
"We want to get our five best athletes playing," Pinkel said. "If we're put in that position because both of them are playing so well, that's really good. We got to make sure we take care of free safety. It's possible we could play both" Williams and Overstreet, "but it's also our responsibility that we get the best players on the field. "
After making a dramatic move from offense to defense, Overstreet said he's leaving any future changes up to the coaching staff.
"We thrive off that competition," Overstreet said. "We just go out there and play hard every day. The rest we leave up to the coaches."
A mixed bag
At cornerback, Missouri has a logjam of inexperienced but speedy players. Michael Harden and Calvin Washington have been manning the first-team spots, but A.J. Kincade, Terrence Curry, Marcus King and Shirdonya Mitchell give the Tigers depth. When Pinkel's staff arrived at MU after the 2000 season, the roster included only one scholarship cornerback, Antoine Duncan.
"We've had a lot of issues there," Pinkel said. "It's been very difficult to come out of that now. We've got to really establish ourselves. We haven't done anything there, but we've got a lot more speed and athleticism."
Along with more speed, Missouri has added some new twists to its defense -- changes designed to stop the controlled passing attacks that scorched the Tigers last season.
With the changes, Simpson said he expects to play more Cover 2 pass coverage, meaning the whip and free safeties will cut the field in half in deep coverage.
"We were getting turned around too much, and we were leaving too many open areas," he said. "É We think we have that secure, and we don't have to worry about that."
The team practiced briefly Saturday morning, then hosted media day and its first fan day in the afternoon at Faurot Field.