Missouri cornerbacks Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton apparently have yet to make a name for themselves much beyond Memorial Stadium.
Neither of the Tigers’ returning starters appeared on the media’s preseason All-SEC team. Dennis was a fourth-team preseason all-conference pick by college football analyst Phil Steele, while Penton didn’t merit a mention.
The SEC certainly doesn’t lack for talented cornerbacks — including Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves, Auburn’s Jonathan Joseph, LSU’s Tre’Davious White, Tennessee’s Cam Sutton and Alabama’s Cyrus Jones — but Missouri believes that its duo deserves attention, too.
“For sure, we’re one of the best duos out here,” said Penton, who started 12 games last season and finished with 36 tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes breakups.
Florida and Missouri are the only teams in the SEC that return a pair of cornerbacks who each recorded at least 10 passes defended last season.
The Gators’ duo of Hargreaves and senior Brian Poole is showered with praise while Dennis, a senior in his second season at MU, and Penton, a junior with 27 games and 14 starts under his belt, largely fly under the radar.
“It’s a lack of respect … but what people say doesn’t affect them,” junior quarterback Maty Mauk said. “They’re going to bring their best every play, so, if you’re a guy on offense on the other team, you better bring your best. They’re going to be ready.”
They were last season, anchoring a Tigers’ pass defense that allowed 6.3 yards per attempt, which tied for 17th in the nation and 12th among Power Five schools.
MU also ranked among the top 40 teams in the country, allowing 212.7 passing yards per game and a 121.01 opponents’ quarterback rating.
Penton and Dennis don’t deserve all the credit, but they certainly deserve plenty of praise for helping turn around a pass defense that ranked last in the SEC in yards allowed the year before.
“Having those two guys back at the corner spots, it’s a good starting point for us, no question about that,” first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom said.
Dennis, a transfer from Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., began his Missouri career as a backup last season, but he wound up starting the final 10 games and finished sixth on the team with 61 tackles. He also had one interception and nine pass breakups.
“His knowledge of the game and how we play is better …,” Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. “He’s extremely strong and aggressive. He’s unbelievably fast. The thing that I’ve constantly tried to work with on him is to be under control. He’s so fast, sometimes he’s out of control. This year, he’s made that progress where now he’s more in control, more balanced and now he’ll be able to make more plays.”
Dennis was elected captain Thursday by his Tigers teammates.
During spring practice, Penton was chosen as Missouri’s most-improved cornerback.
“A great corner is consistently productive — either his open-field tackles, getting sacks in the backfield, interceptions, breakups, caused fumbles, recovered fumbles,” Ford said. “They are constantly producing when the ball’s coming at them.
“Even when the ball’s not coming at them, they are pursuing and making things happen on the backside. The bottom line is — how is he helping our football team? Aarion, in the spring, did that probably the best of anybody in our group.”
Penton said he worked on getting stronger during the offseason and hopes to bring more physicality to Odom’s more aggressive style of defense.
“Aarion, that dude is just a playmaker,” said Logan Cheadle, a sophomore cornerback and Penton’s understudy. “He’s around the ball all the time. He’s just got a feel for the game. He’s not a real big dude and doesn’t make a lot of big-time hits, but he’s just always around the ball.”
Dennis honed his footwork among other improvements in his technique.
Both are poised for monster 2015 seasons, but the leadership they provide is every bit as critical.
“Kenya and Aarion are older guys who’ve been in the game before,” Cheadle said. “They’ve been in the fire and can help you out a lot. … Honestly, I think they are the best two corners in the conference.”