Aside from the offensive line, one position where Missouri really needs to stay healthy this preseason is cornerback, where seniors E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder are the only returnees with extensive playing experience.
This, of course, makes Gaines’ recent setback — a strained patella tendon in his left knee that’s expected to keep him out about a week — particularly troublesome, though Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was simply grateful Wednesday that Gaines didn’t suffer a more severe injury. Apparently, receiver L’Damian Washington stepped on Gaines’ foot while Gaines was trying to leap in practice Monday.
“It could have been so much worse,” Pinkel said. “We’re all a little gun-shy a little bit after the last couple of years. The good news is he’ll be back in a week and ready for our first game.”
That aside, Gaines’ injury will put the position in the spotlight at 7:15 a.m. today, when Missouri holds the second of three preseason scrimmages at Memorial Stadium.
Ponder said cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford recently had a message for all the young corners fighting for playing time, a group that includes redshirt freshman John Gibson, sophomore David Johnson, sophomore Ernest Payton, freshman Aaron Penton and junior Xavier Smith.
“Basically he was telling the young guys they need to step up and take advantage of the opportunity presented to them,” Ponder said. “It’s an open door for the young guys to step in and play.”
After spring practice, Gibson and Johnson were considered up-and-comers, with Johnson being chosen the Tigers’ most improved cornerback. But after a rough first scrimmage Saturday, in which he lost concentration and was burned on a 75-yard touchdown pass, Johnson was dropped from second on the depth chart to fourth.
“I learned to be ready and not to come out like that, come out flat,” Johnson said. “I’m looking forward to (today) a lot.”
Today’s scrimmage should also provide the first real glimpse of what Gibson, who has sat for the better part of a week because of a sprained ankle, can do. He shed his red non-contact jersey Wednesday and should be full go in Gaines’ absence.
“John Gibson, he’s a natural corner,” Ponder said. “He has great hips, he explodes out of his break. He’s a pretty decent athlete.”
So is Penton, a true freshman who earned praise from Pinkel and Ford after he earned some second-team reps in the first scrimmage. He was joined on the second team by Payton, a jumbo-sized corner who is listed at 6-2 and 210 pounds and moved back to his natural position after experimenting at safety this spring.
“He’s a better corner than safety,” Pinkel said. “He’s so big, you look at a corner like that and you say ‘How can a guy move that well?’ And I do — I’ve got all his 40 (times) and everything. But he’s a big athlete who runs really well.”