2011 Missouri Football Preview: Cornerbacks

Photos via Bill Carter.

2011 Missouri Football Preview
Analysis: Dave Matter | Michael Atchison
Opponents: Miami (Ohio) | Arizona State | Western Illinois | Oklahoma | Kansas State | Iowa State | Oklahoma State | Texas A&M | Baylor | Texas
Unit Walkthroughs: Quarterback (Bonus) | Running Backs | Wide Receivers (Bonus) | Tight Ends | Offensive Line | Defensive Ends (Bonus) | Defensive Tackles | Linebackers

The cornerbacks unit is one of the few areas on the 2011 squad that will not feature a rather significant level of experience this fall. The departures of Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis have to be considered a concern considering how vital a steady pass defense was for Missouri in 2010. But for a unit that officially returns zero starters, there is both a basic level of experience and a tremendously high ceiling. There is top-notch athleticism in players like Kip Edwards, Tristen Holt, Robert Steeples and Xavier Smith, and there are instinctive fighters in guys like E.J. Gaines and Trey Hobson. If Mizzou finds two to three reliable options at this position, then they enter the fall with no single albatross-level weakness on defense.

#1 Kip Edwards (6’1, 200, Jr., Arlington, Texas)

For the last several years, Missouri has made it a point to trumpet how the program is recruiting a higher caliber athlete at defensive back. It seems like athleticism and size are almost mutually exclusive at cornerback at the NCAA level outside of the top 5-10 percent of players, but Edwards provides a nice balance of the two. Edwards is the best of both worlds; he’s 6’1", 200 without moving like he’s 6’1", 200. He’s extremely fluid, and perhaps best of all, he generally finds himself in the right place. Mizzou may have protected him by putting him in good situations, but seeing how the coaching staff has continually mentioned that Edwards got "starter’s minutes" in 2010, it’s clear the coaches’ level of trust with him is high.

#31 E.J. Gaines (5’10, 190, So., Independence, Mo.)

While Kip Edwards plays somewhat like a prototypical cornerback, E.J. Gaines plays like a scrapper, somebody who’s always trying to prove something. He and Trey Hobson play a more physical brand of cornerback than the others in the stable, and early indications are that, despite youth, Gaines plays it better. Gaines is unafraid of sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong; he’s a fighter and a fantastic complement to Edwards. He was strong in the spring game, and the only question, of course, is if he has the consistency and maturity to step up and start for a relatively mature defense.

#21 Trey Hobson (5’11, 190, Sr., Stanley, Kan.)

Trey Hobson has been one of the most frustrating players in a generation, if only because his glowing practice reports haven’t translated into tangible playing time. Like Gaines, Hobson put together some nice hits and plays on the ball early in his career, but he seems to have lacked the conservatism and play-by-play consistency required to break him into the rotation on a regular basis. You can’t be a playmaker who gives up a ton of plays. Hobson never appeared to have much of an opportunity behind a relatively deep group of corners in his first three years, but the ladder to climb has never been shorter for Hobson than it will be in 2011. So far this August, he has made the most of his final opportunity, forcing the coaches to establish a three-man, first-string rotation.

#22 Robert Steeples (6’1, 195, Jr., St. Louis, Mo.)

Two years into his career, Robert Steeples appears to be a great athlete who lacks true instincts for any one position. He looks the part, but he is victimized in all the ways that struggling cornerbacks are typically victimized – misdirection, double moves, etc. The career arc of Kevin Rutland proves an upperclassman quantum leap is not out of the question. If Steeples ever wants to see the field again, now’s the time for the leap.

#2 Tristen Holt (6’0, 185, RS Fr., Gilmer, Texas)

Yet another example of Missouri’s newfound wealth of athleticism in the defensive backfield, Tristen Holt is another agile burner whose talent is still being fitted to the Missouri defense. What he lacks in instincts and route awareness, he may make up for in acceleration and ball skills. And even if Holt can’t make an impact at corner, his impressive résumé of punt returns from high school may put him squarely in that mix instead. Whether on offense, defense or special teams, Holt is a smooth strider who seems to need no time to reach top gear.

#26 Xavier Smith (5’11, 180, RS Fr., Edmond, Okla.)

Of last year’s incoming corners, Smith seems to be the bridge between "Gaines the Fighter" and "Holt the Smooth Athlete." Smith was somewhat unheralded as a recruit compared to Gaines and Holt, but part of that invisibility may have been a negative externality of his strong play. His high school highlight tape was rather devoid of highlights by virtue of the fact that Oklahoma high school teams flat out refused to throw to his side of the field. He may not match up athletically to some of his peers yet, but his instincts as a pure cover corner seem spot on thus far in his career.

INCOMING

David Johnson (6’0, 180, Fr., Spring, Texas, Rivals 3-Star)

Missouri has brought in so many true defensive backs in the past few recruiting classes that a player like Johnson is a bit of an odd addition. He was a wide receiver for the first three years of high school, which may actually have played to his advantage as a defensive back. He was often lined up 10 yards off the line of scrimmage and allowed to read and react, and for a recent convert, he shows a surprising fearlessness as a tackler.

2011 vs 2010

This could be a case where the black-and-white facts surrounding a situation -- "Mizzou loses both starters at cornerback!" -- do not hint at the overall level of quality this unit takes into 2011. But no matter how high the ceiling, one has to acknowledge that the loss of six years of starting experience (four from Gettis, two from Rutland) is a significant blow, and though the potential is here, the proven quality or reliability is not. Hopes are undoubtedly high for this unit, but even the most optimistic Missouri fan must acknowledge that a brief step backwards is certainly a possibility.

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