Randy Ponder could see the stress in E.J. Gaines’ face.
Ponder and Gaines are Missouri’s starting senior cornerbacks, but Gaines has been sidelined since the second quarter against Georgia on Oct. 12 because of a strained right quad.
During the Tigers’ win against Florida and especially during a double-overtime loss against South Carolina, Ponder could tell being in street clothes was driving Gaines crazy.
“Every time I come back to the sideline, you could tell he’s gritting his teeth, like, ‘Man, I wish I was out there with my teammates,’” Ponder said. “He has that competitive edge.”
Fortunately for Gaines, a captain and a Fort Osage graduate, the teeth-gnashing is set to end. He is expected to return to the starting lineup when Missouri kicks off against Tennessee at 6 p.m. Saturday in Memorial Stadium.
“I’m feeling good, a lot better,” Gaines said. “I’m excited. I’m a competitor, and that’s what I do. Just being able to get back out here with my teammates and my guys is a good thing.”
He said that it hasn’t been easy to watch the 10th-ranked Tigers from the sideline, but he also praised the job true freshman Aarion Penton and redshirt freshman John Gibson did as his replacements.
“It’s been tough, but in the end it’s not about E.J. Gaines, it’s about Mizzou,” Gaines said. “I’ve just been doing anything I can for the past couple weeks, coaching up the guys and telling them what they can do here and there. Aarion Penton and John Gibson definitely played well.”
Still, Missouri’s defense has a different swagger when Gaines is on the field.
“His experience level is big,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “He is one of our best players. … The confidence level with him on the field is just a plus.”
Despite missing more than two and a half games, Gaines remains tied for fourth on the team with 34 tackles. And he’s tied with sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers for the team lead in interceptions (three).
Gaines, a third-year starter and former all-Big 12 first-team performer, said his injury — a muscle pull high on his right thigh, which he suffered trying to recover after a stumble in coverage — is almost fully healed.
He considered giving it a go against the Gamecocks.
“I feel like I was close. But at a position like corner, you can’t be 75 percent and expect … to play well,” Gaines said.
Asked if he was 100 percent now, Gaines said, “Not yet, but I’m sure by Saturday I will be. (Trainer) Rex Sharp, I’m in there two or three times a day with him and I’m getting my leg right. By Saturday, I’ll be 100 percent.”
Gaines’ Missouri teammates certainly hope that’s the case.
“He has experience and he’s our captain, so he’s a great part of our defense,” Ponder said. “He’s a fundamental part of the team, so it’ll make a huge difference.”