Photos via Bill Carter.
In 2012, Missouri will have big corners and small corners. Experienced corners with well-defined ceilings (and floors) and inexperienced corners with seemingly unlimited upside. Aggressive, sticky corners and players adept at playing the softer, safer coverage required in some instances. The depth of options here is exactly what one would expect of a defense used to facing a lot of spread offenses. How will all-conference corner E.J. Gaines, veteran Kip Edwards, and company respond to facing the more pro-style offenses many present in the SEC East? Who will emerge as the No. 3 (or nickel back) when more man coverage is asked for than in recent years? The depth is intriguing, as are the question marks.
E.J. Gaines (5’10, 190, Jr., Independence, MO)
2010: 22.5 tackles, 1 PBU
2011: 59.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INT, 16 PBU
The Beef: Can’t say I saw this one coming. Coming off of a decent year in 2010, with more tackles than I would have guessed, Gaines certainly arrived in a fashion Bill C. will undoubtedly describe better than I will. I suppose now is when I try to think of all the big time WR’s he might be matched up with in the SEC, but those names escape me. Gaines impresses me even more because he does it not quite at a size that I would think befits someone with that many pass breakups. Can he improve upon his performance this coming year? I am guessing probably not, just because the change in offensive stylings our defense is likely to see. But will someone like Gaines allow us to bring up a safety more often to help stop the run? Perhaps, and that is the beauty of where he stands currently.
RPT: I think I speak on behalf of the RMN Editorial Board when I say that we were extremely uncomfortable with the use of "orgasmic" to describe Gaines’ high school tape. But Gaines’ 2011 season was at least a little tingle-inducing, and that might be conservative. Quite simply, Gaines was one of the best cornerbacks in the conference and one of the most underappreciated corners in the country last year. Gaines now enters a conference that may not sling the ball around as much but places a heavy emphasis on winning man coverage battles. As long as he stays engaged mentally and isn’t lulled to sleep, this may actually be an exciting development for an in-your-face type of corner like E.J. I’ve been thrilled with Gaines’ first two years, and I’m thrilled Mizzou has him for another two. The torch and pitchfork Missouri crowd will obsess over his ball skills and the number of times he was draped on top of receivers without making a play on the ball, but I can’t think of a better pure cover corner Mizzou has had in years.
Bill C.: Passes Defended (interceptions plus break-ups) is an odd stat to use for defensive backs. Some of the best cornerbacks in the country in a given season won’t actually face many passes to defend. It is almost as much a "who took quarterbacks by surprise?" list as one of any sort of overall quality. That only two players in the country (Wake Forest freshman Merrill Noel and Oklahoma State junior Brodrick Brown) "defended" more passes than Gaines makes sense, in a way. He was a first-year starter, and he actually got burned a few times early in the season because of the aforementioned lack of ball skills. But over about the last two-thirds of the season, almost no cornerback in the country was challenged more, or proved himself more, than Gaines, and he was rewarded with an all-conference nod. That he remains a bit of a no-name at the national level is probably as much because he ‘only’ intercepted three of the 19 passes he defended (and in work I’ve been doing at Football Study Hall -- here, here and here -- I’m finding he was probably pretty unlucky in that regard, even if he does have a pair of stone hands).
Gaines is a fantastic cornerback, but if I have a concern about him, it is size. North Carolina’s Dwight Jones simply outmuscled him in a jump ball early in the Independence Bowl, and while it was the smallest of sample sizes, it did hint at a potential shortcoming. Receivers like Julio Jones, A.J. Green and Alshon Jeffery are no longer playing SEC football, but there are plenty of big receivers to go around. It will be interesting to see if the staff tends to use Kip Edwards against bigger targets (like they tended to do against Texas A&M’s Jeff Fuller). Regardless, Gaines’ emergence was the most pleasant of surprises.
Kip Edwards (6’1, 195, Sr., Arlington, TX)
2009: 17.5 tackles, 1 INT, 2 PBU
2010: 30.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL (1 sacks), 1 INT, 6 PBU
2011: 46.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FF, 3 PBU
Bill C.: As mentioned above, Edwards has thrived at times in guarding bigger opposing receivers. And throughout his three seasons as a contributor, he has shown pretty solid upside overall. But when he makes a bad mistake, it tends to be a bad mistake. And in coming off of an early-season injury in 2011 (because everybody on the team has suffered at least an intermediate injury), he suffered a few more of those glitches in 2011 than in 2010. Healthy and evidently ready to become a vocal senior leader, however, he still has quite an opportunity to define his legacy as one of Missouri’s better recent corners. He is big, strong and athletic, if not as successfully aggressive as Gaines. His and Gaines’ skill sets complement each other well as a whole.
The Beef: So I started writing this about three times and each time I went to start with some sort of negative about Kip Edwards and my perception of his stats. So let’s start on the positive, in that Edwards has progressed nicely from one year to the next in the tackle department. He was a bit more productive on the high-end plays in 2010, but was certainly solid in 2011. Continued progression this year and perhaps a few more pass breakups and Kip could have himself a lovely senior year and perhaps position himself to be a 3rd day draft pick.
RPT: Kip Edwards may be poised to benefit from the Kevin Rutland senior bump, and Missouri may well need him to do so. Last year, Edwards entered the season with the pressure of having to be the No. 1 guy. This year, it would seem he enters with the pressure of likely seeing increased passes thrown his way as the result of playing across from Gaines. Here’s to hoping a senior leader is in position to take advantage of the extra opportunities he’ll be afforded.
Randy Ponder (5’10, 195, Jr., Edmond, OK)
2011: 31.0 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF, 4 PBU
The Beef: Ponder certainly came out of nowhere last year, but as quick as he arrived on the scene during the early and middle part of the year, it did seem like Ponder disappeared a bit as the season moved along. I am guessing someone else can back that up with some sort of statistical proof, but what those stats won’t show you is how hard a hitter Ponder was when trolling the secondary this past season. As a junior, it will be interesting to watch him develop and to see how many plays he continues to see in the secondary (depending upon the growth of those below him on the depth chart, but perhaps more talented or bigger).
RPT: Does Randy Ponder’s role diminish greatly if Missouri’s 2012 opponents aren’t going Four-Wide sets on 90 percent of snaps? I don’t know, but I’m greatly intrigued to find out.
Bill C.: Randy Ponder seems to bring a safety’s traits to the cornerback position. To me, he is a prime candidate in the race for lead nickel back, though as RPT suggested, the need for a nickel back decreases a bit in the SEC. His emergence as an occasional weapon in the 2011 secondary was both an accomplishment and an indictment of other players in the unit that had more well-defined upside but couldn’t match Ponder’s down-to-down proficiency.
Robert Steeples (6’1, 195, Sr., St. Louis, MO)
2009: 13.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL (1 sack), 1 FF, 4 PBU
2010: 3.5 tackles
2011: 16.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU
The Beef: Man alive … I hope 2012 is not like 2010 was for Steeples. Tough regression there for the St. Louis senior-to-be, but he certainly recovered well this past season. It would be nice for him to finish up strong (might have been nicer had he been able to help us recruit someone from his high school alma mater, but that is neither here nor there), and I certainly see Steeples seeing time on the field on defense and on special teams. How often he sees it on defense may depend on how often we have to go 4-2-5 in a league where we can expect less wide-open offenses than we saw this past year, as well as if he can hang on to his second-team status on the depth chart.
Bill C.: Robert Steeples seems to personify the Athlete Without A Position we sometimes see in Missouri’s "recruit great athletes and find a position for them later" approach. He was a solid, three-star defensive back at De Smet, and his athleticism outshone those of players like Carl Gettis or, in 2011, Randy Ponder. But his instincts are, and always have been lacking. While I always root for the "player pulls it together as a senior" story, I can’t say I would mind if one of the younger players below him on this list were able to surpass him on the depth chart.
RPT: I won’t add anything other than Steeples first two years qualified him for eligibility alongside Justin Garrett in the Hall of Uh Oh.
UPDATE: Steeples announced in late-April that he is transferring.
Xavier Smith (5’11, 185, So., Edmond, OK)
2011: 3.0 tackles
Bill C.: Xavier Smith is a summer camp success story, a player who had no real scholarship offers before blowing up at a Missouri camp, quickly receiving an offer, and committing to the Tigers. He is another player who wowed Mizzou coaches with his overall athleticism rather than a position-specific skill set.
While it is certainly easy to draw conclusions from the fact that he was behind both Steeples and Ponder on the pecking order last season, I will instead just point out that, despite the occasional senior surge, one tends to make the biggest level of improvement between their first and second years and their second and third years. Whatever Smith is, he will probably be a year from now; but he still has time to make a nice surge.
Ernest Payton (6’3, 200, RS Fr., College Station, TX)
Bill C.: I’ve mentioned it before, but it is funny how much we make of measurements. Put someone 6’1 next to someone 6’3 in real life, and it just doesn’t feel like that big a difference. But give Missouri a 6’3 cornerback and watch us all ooh and ahh about his physicality and potential. Ernest Payton is a 6’3 cornerback, and I cannot help but be excited about his potential. If he were 6’1, 200, I may not have given him a second thought to this point. If he is proficient enough to overtake Ponder and others for the nickel back role, then I will be all sorts of excited.
The Beef: I have quite a bit of curiosity about this young man, and I have to be honest in saying he is a name I will be paying a lot of attention to this coming spring. I believe I remember hearing good things about him during last fall, and he certainly would give us a different type of physical presence on the field should he see it. I do even wonder if he stays at cornerback, or if the staff tries to move him over to a safety position. Either way, I am very excited about the possibilities Payton may have to offer and will be excited to see his development.
RPT: This might be the biggest sleeper on the entire roster. Whether it’s at corner or at safety, once the coaching staff deems him ready, there has to be a way to get him on the football field. Empirically speaking, guys his size just aren’t supposed to have his closing speed. Missouri hasn’t had a guy like this since William Moore, and Payton has a solid 2-3 inches on Willy Mo.
David Johnson (6’0, 185, RS Fr., Spring, TX)
The Beef: I guess for as effusive as I was in my praise of Payton, I suppose I need to be able to say similar nice things about Johnson. And I know of no reason as to why he could not be a great player for us. I just don’t know of any specific reason as to why he will be. I am going to take the wait and see approach here and hope I am impressed as I have often been in the Pinkel years.
Bill C.: If he were two inches taller, we’d be drooling. That said, his film is fantastic. Here’s what RPT said about him last year:
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. What surprised me most was how fearless he seems to be as a tackler.
INCOMING: Chaston Cuffee (6’1, 185, Fr., ***, Cleburne, TX)
Bill C.: Cuffee was more or less an unknown when he committed to Missouri rather early in the 2012 recruiting process, the rare Texas-diamond-in-the-rough candidate that didn’t commit in December or January.
The Beef: Cuffie comes in pretty well respected and certainly with good measurables. The staff very much seems to want him here, so hopefully he can develop behind the decent depth we have available and mature in the coming years.
INCOMING: John Gibson (5’10, 175, Fr., ***, Missouri City, TX)
Bill C.: In a way, John Gibson fell into Missouri’s lap. A longtime Arkansas commit, Gibson is not guaranteed to qualify, and he was told by Bobby Petrino, late in the recruiting process, that with the new caps on signing classes, Arkansas couldn’t afford to spend a spot on him in case he didn’t qualify and occupied the spot of someone who would. Missouri, meanwhile, had some open slots in their class. Hello, Mr. Gibson. We have no idea if Gibson will actually qualify or end up placed in a junior college, but with extra slots this was a no-risk situation for Mizzou: either they stumble into a cornerback with what appear to be great coverage and ball skills and speed to burn, or he doesn’t qualify and they maybe end up with him in a couple of years. Regardless, his film is fantastic.