Facing Texas A&M and the top passing offense in the SEC isn’t a good week to be down two starters in the secondary, but that’s the position Missouri finds itself in coming off a bye week.
Senior strong safety Braylon Webb, a three-year starter, won’t be available for the first half at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in College Station, Texas, after his targeting ejection late in the fourth quarter Nov. 1 against Kentucky.
Tigers coach Gary Pinkel confirmed Monday during his weekly news conference that sophomore Aarion Penton — who has started 11 games in the last two years, including all nine this season — remains indefinitely suspended after his arrested last week for alleged marijuana possession.
It’s Penton’s second arrest for possession of less than 35 grams of weed since March and it’s unclear when, or if, he’ll return this season.
Webb and Penton have combined for seven of Missouri’s 10 interceptions this season and arguably have been the team’s top defensive backs.
Webb also ranks second on the Tigers, 7-2 and 4-1 in the SEC, with 51 tackles, while Penton is tied for first with seven pass breakups.
The Aggies, 7-3 and 3-3 in the SEC, average nearly 330 passing yards per game, 35 more than any other conference offense.
Senior Malcome Kennedy (5.2) and freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones (4.3) and Speedy Noil (4.1) all rank in the conference’s top nine in pass receptions per game, while Kennedy (63.0) and sophomore Josh Reynolds (62.1) rank in the top 10 in average receiving yards.
“We know going into this game that they’re pretty potent across the board,” Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said.
It doesn’t matter who starts: sophomore Kenny Hill, who leads the SEC in total offense (350.6) and passing yards (331.1) but is coming off a two-game suspension, or freshman Kyle Allen, who completed 19 of 29 passes for 277 yards with four touchdowns and an interception in an upset win Saturday against Auburn.
A&M presents a stern test for any opposing defense.
“They’re very talented,” Pinkel said. “They’ve got some very talented players, who can make plays and great catches and certainly yards after their catches. That’s going to be a great challenge for us without question.”
Pinkel said junior Cortland Browning will start at safety with sophomore cornerback John Gibson — who started three of the first four games this season before he was displaced by junior college transfer Kenya Dennis — stepping in for Penton.
“Things happen and the bottom line is there’s no excuses,” Pinkel said. “We’ve got to go out and perform at a high level. Both those guys have played a lot, so I think they’ll do a good job and we’ll go from there.”
Ford said the personnel changes won’t alter Missouri’s defensive game plan.
It’s a milestone game for Browning — a Tyler, Texas, native, who has played in all 23 games the last two seasons but will be making his first start.
“It makes it special, memorable anyway,” Browning said. “I don’t like the fact that it had to happen like this.”
Browning doesn’t expect to be nervous.
“It’s just football,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. … I’ll be ready to play, not nervous though.”
It’s also going to be special for Gibson, a Missouri City, Texas, native.
“We always talk about getting yourself ready for your next opportunity, and that’s what this is for Gibson,” Ford said.
Offensively, Missouri expects to have senior wide Darius White available. He has missed four of the last five games with groin strains.