COLUMBIA — Among the more intriguing competitions in Missouri’s preseason camp has taken place at cornerback, where the Tigers have spent the better part of the month trying to shake out the depth chart behind star cornerback E.J. Gaines and experienced senior Randy Ponder.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
However, with Gaines being forced to sit out Missouri’s final scrimmage of the preseason Thursday with a knee injury, one might be tempted to say there’s a leader or two in the clubhouse.
In his absence, sophomore cornerback Ernest Payton worked almost exclusively with the No. 1 defense, while sophomore cornerback David Johnson got a little first-team work, too.
However, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said the situation remains fluid.
"It’s still a work in progress," Ford said. "We’re nowhere near it yet and we’re running out of time.”
Though he likely remains behind Ponder in the pecking order, Payton, in particular, stood out Thursday. Unlike the second scrimmage, he didn’t have a pass breakup or an interception, but he did have several hard hits and seemed to be a willing tackler.
"He’s playing better, he’s playing better," Ford said. "I’m real proud of Ernest’s camp so far and what he’s been able to do. We still have a few things to straighten up, but he’s played real well, particularly in the scrimmage.”
Ford was also asked about Payton’s belief that the time he spent at safety this spring helped him open his hips, a crucial fundamental for cornerbacks who are forced to turn and run with receivers.
"I thought he had pretty good hips before he went there," Ford said. "But he feels a little bit more comfortable with himself, he’s got a lot more confidence and I think he understands the defense, so he’s progressed really well."
Ford said Payton, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, has shown more confidence at corner since his tryout at safety, something Johnson — a fellow Texan — has noticed as well. Before the move, Johnson said Payton was timid at tackling and coming out of his breaks.
“I didn’t think he would do that well at safety, so he’s in the right position,” Johnson said. “He’s learned how to use his size a lot more. I don’t feel like he knew how big he was at cornerback when he first started playing. Now, he’s (learned) how to use his size as an advantage.”
Now Johnson, who opened camp ahead of Payton on the depth chart, is competing with him for playing time.
Johnson has had a bit of a journey this camp — he opened with the No. 2 defense and was dropped to the No. 4 defense before returning to the No. 2 group — but Ford said he has been better since his disastrous first scrimmage, when he gave up a big play and later admitted he wasn’t quite as focused as he needed to be.
"I think we got my message across to him, yeah," Ford said. "I think he’s played better since our little conversation."
Johnson said he saw it as a wake-up call, and has been satisfied with his production ever since.
“I know they expect a lot out of me and I wasn’t really producing that much,” Johnson said.
Beyond Johnson and Payton, true freshman Aarion Penton and junior Xavier Smith — who had a pass breakup Thursday — are also angling for playing time. Penton and Smith both lined up with the No. 2 defense Thursday, as did redshirt freshman John Gibson, who had a portion of his camp derailed by a sprained ankle.
"You walk into camp and you get hurt right at the beginning, it doesn’t allow you to start off the way you want to," Ford said of Gibson. "But I was pleased with how he did today."
Gibson said the injury was definitely a setback.
"I definitely think it affected me a lot, due to not getting enough playing time," said Gibson, who thought he was having a good camp before he got hurt. "It’s still not 100 percent, I’m still trying to get back to my old self."
Go ahead and put him among the players hoping to join Gaines as an established contributor at a crucial position.
“There’s E.J. and then there’s everybody else,” Ford said. “We’re trying to get everybody else on E.J.’s level."