COLUMBIA, Mo. — Gary Pinkel spent the majority of a 30-minute press conference Monday afternoon reminding reporters a healthier team should mean a better one.
The Tigers have, for the most part, avoided the plague of twists, tweaks and tears that started in last year’s fall camp and never really stopped — a significant factor in their 5-7 finish.
Perhaps the most important player to juke a serious scare has been E.J. Gaines, the cornerback who enters his senior season as a team captain and the face of the Mizzou defense.
As soon as he strained his left patellar tendon at a practice earlier this month, he was immediately shut down. Risking further injury was not worth rushing his return. After all, he has little left to prove to teammates and coaches. They believe he can be the best player at his position in the Southeastern Conference, if not more.
“E.J. obviously is an all-conference player, an outstanding player,” Pinkel says. “He has been since he’s been here.”
“We know, at Mizzou, that he is one of the best corners in the nation,” Mizzou senior linebacker Andrew Wilson says. “The nation doesn’t know that. I think he wants to get that out there, because he is one of the best.”
“He’s an All-American,” junior defensive end Kony Ealy says.
But the respect Gaines has earned in Columbia, Mo., doesn’t necessarily carry beyond state borders. Gaines has never been an All-American. And the only first-team all-conference honor he has received came from a league his team no longer belongs to.
He has one more season to convince outsiders, and he knows there’s work to be done.
“I’ve definitely got a chip on my shoulder,” Gaines says.
The chip is shared by a team that left expectations unfulfilled in 2012. It’s also specific to Gaines, whose solid junior year failed to make ripples in the SEC.
It was in 2011 that Gaines won his starting job and thrived. He finished fourth in the NCAA with passes defended (18), intercepted two and claimed first-team All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore.
He then defended 11 passes and picked off one as a junior. He totaled a career-high 74 tackles and returned a fumble for a touchdown. But when it came time for conference honors, the league passed him by without so much as an honorable mention.
Even as a senior, Gaines remains on the edge of the SEC radar. The only Mizzou player to make the preseason all-conference media team, he earned a third-team nod. The league’s coaches gave him a bit more praise, voting him to the second team. Still, more attention centers on Vanderbilt corner Andre Hall and Florida’s Loucheiz Purifoy.
With a potentially damning knee injury now behind him, Gaines will take the field on Saturdays this fall looking to prove to everyone else what his team already believes.
“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “The injury could have been a lot worse. For it being minor, I’m grateful. I’m ready to go.”
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.