The comparisons, perhaps, were inescapable for Missouri sophomore cornerback Aarion Penton.
“When I see him, I see E.J. Gaines,” senior middle linebacker Darvin Ruise said.
As a true freshman last season, Penton started two midseason games for the Tigers after Gaines suffered a quad injury at Georgia, but the similarities run much deeper than merely playing the same position.
Penton, who appeared in all 14 games and finished with 12 tackles and one interception last season, is listed at 5 feet 10 and 185 pounds — almost identical to Gaines’ build (5-10, 190).
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Both Penton and Gaines, a Fort Osage graduate, also were precocious talents coming out of high school who immediately saw the field and made an impact at Missouri.
Penton, a graduate of Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis, showed terrific ball skills and instincts last season — not unlike Gaines, who led the Tigers with five interceptions in 2013.
“If the ball is in the air my way, I’m trying to come down with it for sure,” Penton said.
Penton also showed that, again much like Gaines, he’s is a complete cornerback — physical enough to succeed against the run on the perimeter.
“Aarion, the sky’s the limit for that guy,” Ruise said. “Simply because, in today’s society, you’ve got corners that are just pass guys. Aarion is not afraid to put his head in there and get dirty, and that’s what you want and the corner position.”
Gaines, of course, has moved on. He was a sixth-round pick by the St. Louis Rams and currently is listed as Janoris Jenkins’ backup at right corner.
Meanwhile, Penton is prepped for his first season as a full-time starter with the Tigers, and freely admits that he still looks at Gaines as a benchmark.
“Sure, I do,” Penton said. “I have to, pretty much. Everything he did here, for the most part, was great. He did everything the coaches asked him to do. I used his example to my advantage and made sure that I focused in and paid attention.”
Penton said he learned a great deal from Gaines about footwork, being physical, how to take on blocks, how to move around blocks “and make key plays and tackles for losses.”
“I loved him and (former Tigers cornerback) Randy (Ponder),” Penton said. “Whenever I felt like I was out there and didn’t get something down, I’d always go back over and ask them, ‘Look, in this coverage, what do we do on this? What do we do on that? They’d give me the right answer every time.’ That just gave me confidence every time I stepped out there that I knew what I was doing.”
Now, it’s Penton’s turn to pay it forward, helping a new crop of young corners — including Lee’s Summit West graduate Logan Cheadle — adjust to the college game.
“I’m making sure every time we do our drill we make the right call,” Penton said. “Being a freshman, it was fast — way faster than high school — but now, since I’ve been out there my freshman year, I have that experience. Everything has slowed down for me now. It’s great.”
Penton also said he’d be happy to continue following in Gaines’ footsteps.
“I’m pretty sure that’s everyone’s goal (getting to the NFL), and that’s my goal too,” Penton said. “I’m just working harder each day.”