The Missouri Tigers entered the spring with their top three corners returning from last season. Junior E.J. Gaines, senior Kip Edwards, and junior Randy Ponder remained atop the depth chart throughout the spring.
Ponder played mostly in the slot last year, and this spring, he missed some time due to injury, but he still managed to get in a lot of work on the outside, where he is the next guy in on either side.
Gaines and Edwards spent the spring working to improve their fundamentals, and helping some of the younger corners achieve their potential.
One of those younger corners is sophomore Xavier Smith, who moved ahead of senior Robert Steeples for that fourth corner spot at the end of the spring. Smith spent most of the spring working on and improving in his fundamentals, and he showed a real nose for the football this spring, as well.
According to Cornell Ford, who coaches cornerbacks for Missouri, the fourth corner is significant, in that the Tigers routinely play three corners, and the fourth guy is the next one in.
Following the Spring game, Steeples informed the staff that he was leaving the program. He'll graduate this spring, and it's expected that Steeples will utilize his final year of eligibility playing as a graduate student at another school. At this time, Memphis appears to be the leader for his services.
Toward the end of spring football, Coach Ford talked about the two red-shirt freshmen.
"David is still learning, just all of the little detail things," said Coach Ford, talking about Johnson being in the mix for that fourth spot. "He's getting better. He's competing. And, I think he's got a chance! I think he really does have a chance."
"I think they both can run," explained Coach Ford, talking about the two young corners. "Payton is just an unbelievable athlete! But consistency, he's just got a lot of things to learn. And he's working hard. But, he just needs rep after rep after rep. Every rep he can get will make him better. The great thing is that everything that we (did this spring), we're going to come back in August and start all over again. So, he's going to hear it all over again. And, he's got all summer to work on it, as well. But, he just needs all of the reps that he can get. Each rep will make him better."
As Coach Ford points out, Johnson and Payton are very talented. In fact, I think it's safe to say that this is the most talented group of corners that Missouri has had under Coach Pinkel.
With a returning First-Team All-Conference performer in Gaines, an experienced fifth-year senior in Edwards, and with another experienced player in Ponder, the Tigers are in pretty good shape at the corner position, especially if everyone stays healthy. In fact, it's reasonable to consider the cornerback position to be a strength of the team.
Smith will be ready to come in as needed, and he's athletic enough to get the job done. Of the two very talented red-shirt freshmen, Johnson appears to be closer to being ready, although Payton may very well end up being the better one of the two. And, the Tigers have talented corners coming in this summer to add to the mix and to develop for the future.