COLUMBIA, Mo. – Gary Pinkel ruffled through the papers to make his point. There, in a stack of practice reports, was proof E.J. Gaines was consistent. There, in a rumpled mess of critiques, was proof the Missouri junior cornerback could be trusted against Southeastern Conference speed.
It was a late August evening. After a scrimmage, the Missouri coach stood near a sideline at Memorial Stadium and shuffled through analysis from cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford like a poker dealer with a loose wrist.
Pinkel looked up after a quick glance. No, not one poor session for Gaines in the last three weeks, he concluded. No, not one area of concern.
“That’s why he’s an all-conference player,” Pinkel said. “The neat thing about that is he’s 10 pounds heavier than he was a year ago, and his focus on being good is obviously important to him – because those reports by Coach Ford tell you that this guy is competing to be great everyday. That’s why he’s going to be a heck of a football player.”
A heck of a player? Missouri needs one on the outside in a year when SEC offenses will try to stretch the Tigers’ secondary to a snap. Pinkel’s comment is an insight into why the staff trusts Gaines to accept the responsibility. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound Independence, Mo., native returns after earning 69 tackles and two interceptions in addition to defending a program-record 18 passes in his first campaign as a starter – one in which he earned first-team All-Big 12 honors.
A heck of a player? Missouri needs one on the outside in a year when SEC offenses will try to bully the Tigers’ secondary with a bruising approach. Mizzou will face wide receivers with an average height of 6-2 this fall. Fine, Gaines has said, because he and other defenders have a boulder on their shoulder after an offseason of warnings and are eager to prove they belong.
A heck of a player? Missouri needs one on the outside in a year when SEC offenses will try to scramble the Tigers’ secondary with unfamiliar schemes. Still, Gaines, who was named a third-team preseason All-SEC member in July, will continue to work to help a defense that allowed an average of 23.5 points and 252.6 yards per game last season. Through it all, he’ll keep close this advice passed to him from former cornerback Kevin Rutland during his early days in the program: “You have to want to be great.”
“I feel like a lot of people are looking over our defense, which is fine with us,” said Gaines, who was part of a group that allowed 223 yards in the 52-point victory over Southeastern Louisiana last Saturday. “We have a little chip on our shoulder, so we have to go out and prove to the fans and to everyone that we can compete in the SEC as a defense. I feel like we’ve got to go out there and show them how physical we are.”
He’ll get that chance Saturday, when Georgia arrives at Memorial Stadium to welcome Missouri to its new conference home. The Bulldogs produced 485 yards – 258 of which came through the air from junior quarterback Aaron Murray – in their season-opening victory over Buffalo. Senior wide receiver Tavarres King paced Georgia with six catches for 117 yards and a touchdown in the 22-point rout.
“Everybody says the SEC is a lot more physical, which I believe they are too,” Gaines said. “The receivers are bigger, faster, stronger. They block a lot better. We’ve got to be more physical.”
With great test comes opportunity. Gaines understands this better than most. Teammates noticed a swagger about him last season. Missouri junior quarterback James Franklin called it “a sense of presence,” and that edge will be needed this weekend in one of the most significant games in Columbia, Mo., in recent memory.
Gaines laughed when told of Franklin’s read of him, but the cornerback considers the swagger necessary. After all, he’s part of a duel of speed, ego and focus after each snap. It’s him and the wide receiver on an island of will. One-on-one. May the best man prevail.
“Yeah, he got some awards last year, and he’s a really good player,” Franklin said. “Teams have to recognize that, and I think he does a great job of making everyone know that he’s out there.”
Gaines does it by staying driven. He entered the season with a goal of earning All-American status. That would be a feat for someone who learned to excel as a cornerback after a standout prep career as a two-way star that included time as a running back. (He rushed for 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Osage High, the same suburban Kansas City, Mo., school that Los Angeles Angels slugger Albert Pujols attended.)
Gaines evolved with each year. He arrived on campus as a freshman before the 2010 season a bit, well, cocky as Scout.com’s No. 52-ranked cornerback prospect in the country. But the bluster produced results: He played in all 13 games that fall, earning 26 tackles and breaking up one pass.
So the swagger was always there, but Gaines’ approach matured in time. Now, he has the resume to back up the bravado. Now, he has the discipline to earn coaches’ trust.
A heck of a player? Gaines has been one all along.
“E.J. is a playmaker,” Missouri sophomore wide receiver Jimmie Hunt said. “He’s most definitely a playmaker. He does whatever it takes to get the job done.”
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.