Missouri would prefer to have a fully stocked secondary for its meeting Saturday with Texas A&M in College Station, Texas.
Alas, the Tigers will be without sophomore starting cornerback Aairon Penton and also must do without senior strong safety Braylon Webb, a three-year starter and team captain, for the first half.
Penton is suspended after he was arrested Friday for the second time in six months on suspicion of marijuana possession, while Webb was ejected for targeting late in the win against Kentucky and is suspended until the third quarter.
Having junior cornerback Kenya Dennis lessens the blow.
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Dennis, a transfer from Hinds (Miss.) Community College, won the starting job in a duel with sophomore John Gibson but was demoted to second string after the season’s first game.
He didn’t stay down on the depth for long, retaking the starting job entering SEC play and tightening his grip on the position during the last five games.
“He’s played very well and played very physical,” Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford said. “He’s the kind of guy we thought we were getting. Every game, he’s gotten a little bit better — his confidence is better, his technique is better.”
Dennis recorded only six tackles in his first six games, but he broke out with a five-tackle performance off the bench against Indiana.
During the last five games, Dennis — a 6-foot, 195-pound Leland, Miss., native — has totaled 28 tackles, including three of his 3 1/2 tackles for a loss on the season.
He now ranks sixth on MU with 39 total tackles, forced a fumble against Florida and is tied for the team lead with seven pass breakups on the season.
“He’s one of those guys who came from a junior college and just kind of dove into the program,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The discipline and all that we do, sometimes that’s a big adjustment for junior-college players, but he just jumped right in and kind of gravitated to it. … It was neat to see him embrace it.
“He’s got a great attitude. He works hard. He’s got a lot of energy. So we’re real pleased with his progress. He’s a lot better player right now than he was certainly six or seven weeks ago.”
Gibson will start opposite Dennis in Penton’s place, while junior Cortland Browning gets the starting nod in place of Webb on the back end of the Tigers’ defense.
Browning has never started a game, but he doesn’t consider himself a neophyte either after serving as Webb’s primary understudy the last two seasons.
“I ask him what I need to know,” Browning said. “I wasn’t born yesterday, so I’ve been around. I don’t really need advice, but Braylon guides me in the right direction.”
If Dennis or Gibson needs a break, expect to see freshman Logan Cheadle, a Lee’s Summit West graduate, and junior David Johnson in at corner, while freshmen strong safety Anthony Sherrils and freshman free safety Thomas Wilson also could be pressed into more extensive action.
But while the faces might change, don’t expect Missouri to change.
“Anytime you go against a team like A&M, there are things you have to do to keep them below their average,” Ford said. “I don’t know that anybody will ever stop them, because they’re pretty good at what they do. As far as our personnel, nothing will change. We’re going to do what we do.”