Cornerback Kenya Dennis didn’t have the weight of expectations in his first season with Missouri last fall.
Dennis, a transfer from Hinds Community College in Mississippi, started 2014 as a backup before working his way into the starting lineup for the final 10 games.
He flourished, recording 61 tackles and defending 10 passes, which rocketed expectations for his senior season this fall through the roof.
That made Dennis’ early-season struggles when he gave up big plays or touchdowns against Southeast Missouri and Arkansas State particularly jarring.
“Kids don’t play perfect all the time,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s had a real good year, but we had this expectation like nobody’s ever going to catch a pass around him or he’s going to knock every ball down. That’s just not going to happen.”
Senior safety and captain Ian Simon said Dennis was dealing with a nagging ankle injury, but he also could tell frustration was building.
“He felt like he was letting the team down,” Simon said. “We let him know that these things happen and that’s the life we live as a DB, so you can’t get down on yourself. You just have to come back stronger on the next play.”
Last week, the season took a sharp upturn for Dennis, who is seventh on the team with 19 tackles and also has a sack this season, against South Carolina’s Lorenzo Nunez.
Dennis snagged his first interception of the season and the first of three for the Tigers in the third quarter during a 24-10 victory.
“It was definitely something I needed,” Dennis said. “I knew I needed an interception or something to help me get my confidence back up. I never really lost all my confidence, but I felt like I wasn’t off to such a great start. That was definitely a confidence booster.”
Dennis admitted to being frustrated with his early-season struggles.
He’d been fooled a few times guessing a receiver’s route or mangled his footwork in certain situations.
“I was taking more chances and trying to be aggressive,” Dennis said. “I try to disguise my coverage, and do some things I wished I could do last year to make myself a better player. I might’ve been overthinking it a little bit.”
Being elected as a senior captain compounded the pressure Dennis felt to be perfect.
“I knew I had to come out and not only be a vocal leader, but I had to lead by example,” Dennis said. “My position coach would tell me, ‘We need you to play great, and show these guys that are young how it’s done.’ … It was definitely a little more pressure than last year.”
No. 11 Florida at Missouri
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Memorial Stadium in Columbia
TV: SEC Network
Other story lines
1. QB DEBUT SUCCESS: All seven Missouri starting quarterbacks in the Gary Pinkel era won their debut after Drew Lock went 21 of 28 for 136 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions during a 24-10 victory against South Carolina last Saturday. Brad Smith (Illinois, 2002), Chase Daniel (Murray State, 2006), Blaine Gabbert (Illinois, 2009), James Franklin (Miami-Ohio, 2011), Corbin Berkstresser (Arizona State, 2012) and Maty Mauk (Florida, 2013) also won their first career start.
2. HOME, SWEET HOME: Missouri had established itself as one of the nation’s top road teams before a Sept. 26 loss at Kentucky. Rather quietly, the Tigers have now won seven consecutive home games since last year’s shutout against Georgia.
3. HOMECOMING SUCCESS: Missouri hosts No. 11 Florida for its 104th homecoming Saturday, a game that kicks off at 6:30 p.m. on the SEC Network. The Tigers are 60-38-5 all-time in previous homecoming games.