Following Mizzou’s tremendous 12-win season, ShowMeMizzou.com continues with our 2013 position reviews with a look at the Missouri secondary.
Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel has often told the story of how when he first came to Missouri, the Tigers had just one cornerback on scholarship. And for at least the first half of Coach Pinkel’s now 13-year tenure, Mizzou was always trying to catch up at the cornerback position. The last three years, though, the Tigers have turned cornerback into a position of strength on the team. And in 2013, Mizzou had quality, and depth of quality, at cornerback.
Cornerback is a key position on a football team, and is not only one of the most difficult to play, but it is also one of the most difficult to recruit to at the highest level. There just aren’t enough high-quality corners to go around. But since Coach Pinkel first arrived, Missouri has continually upgraded their recruiting at the cornerback position. The talent at that critical position has improved, and in 2010, Missouri signed what has been under Coach Pinkel the Tigers’ best cornerback to date.
In 2011, then sophomore E.J. Gaines had the best season of any of Coach Pinkel’s corners up to that time at Missouri, and he received All-Big 12 recognition as a result. In 2013, Gaines again received all-conference recognition, this time in the SEC. I’m sure that Missouri’s probably had a corner as good as Gaines, but it’s been quite a while, and not since Coach Pinkel took over at the helm of the Tigers.
In 2013, Gaines was brilliant! On the season, he made 75 tackles, including 4 TFLs, to go along with 1 QBH, 3 PBUs, 5 interceptions, and a fumble recovery that he returned 11 yards for a TD against Auburn in the SEC Championship. Most opponents usually stayed away from Gaines in the passing game, and he was also very strong in run support. Gaines missed 2 games in the middle of the season, and his absence was hard-felt, as the Tigers were victimized through the air in the 4th quarter and overtime in their only loss of the regular season.
What was even better than his all-conference-level play was the leadership that he provided for a young group of very talented cornerbacks who will continue to follow the example that the quiet Gaines impressed upon each of them. Gaines has been what Coach Pinkel likes to refer to as a “visual aid” for all the young corners to see how to go about it. Gaines will undoubtedly go on to play on Sundays.
Missouri’s other starting cornerback in 2013 was senior Randy Ponder, a former walk-on who would not be dislodged from his position by the more talented youngsters who continually challenged him. While teams stayed away from Gaines, Ponder saw plenty of action, and he held up well. On the season, he made 56 tackles, many of them among the biggest hits of the season for Mizzou. As a senior, Ponder was an enforcer on the edge, and he delivered big hits while being a sure tackler in the open field. He was also credited with 10 PBUs on the season, and he came up with 2 interceptions.
Coming out of fall camp, and heading into the season opener, it appeared that sophomore Ernest Payton was about to overtake Ponder for the starting job when Payton suffered a season-ending knee injury. The 6’2” corner played in the season opener, and he made 2 tackles, including 1 TFL, and he was also credited with 1 PBU.
A true freshman, Aarion Penton, came into camp and impressed from day one, earned the right to play, and saw action in all 14 games for Missouri, including making 2 starts in place of the injured Gaines. Penton played regularly at corner throughout the season, and was also an integral part of Mizzou’s special teams. On the season, the talented freshman acquitted himself well, with 16 tackles, including 1 TFL, to go along with 1 PBU, and 1 interception. Penton studied Gaines’ every move, and he learned fast! When I look at Penton, I see many similarities to a young Gaines.
Another very talented young corner who also played regularly throughout the 2013 season for Missouri, is RSF John Gibson. He fell behind early in fall camp due to some off-field issues, but he earned his way into the rotation at cornerback by the third game of the season. Once he got on the field, Gibson played well, and he remained in the rotation throughout the rest of the season. He too, played extensively on special teams, and he finished the season with 14 tackles. He was also credited with 1 QBH, 3 PBUs, 1 interception, and 1 fumble recovery. He also returned a pair of kicks for a total of 77 yards.
So after Payton went down, it was a pair of seniors and a pair of freshmen who saw almost all of the action at corner for Mizzou in 2013. Yet, there were 2 other corners who saw limited action at corner, and who also played on special teams for Missouri in 2013. Sophomore David Johnson played in 12 games, and junior Xavier Smith played in 10 games, for Missouri in 2013, mostly on special teams, but also some at corner. On the season, Johnson made 3 tackles, including 1 TFL.
One other cornerback bears mentioning, the ultra-talented freshman Anthony Sherrils, who took a red-shirt in 2013, but who also managed to made a significant contribution on the scout team, going up against the Missouri receivers on a daily basis. Sherrils not only helped the team with his work on the scout team, but he caught everyone’s attention with his play, and he served notice that he’ll be heard from going forward.
The 2013 season saw the continued emergence and development of one of the better safeties to have played at Missouri under Coach Pinkel, in junior Braylon Webb, who provided the Tigers with reliable, quality safety play throughout the season. Late in fall camp, Webb moved from free safety to strong safety, which allowed the Tigers to line their best safety up on the wider side of the field. It was a smart move, and Webb made it pay off, as he played with discipline and solid fundamentals, rarely allowing receivers behind him, while making plays in the passing game and in run support. Webb continued to be one of Mizzou’s better tacklers in the open field, and in 2013, he was very productive for the Tigers, finishing with 89 total tackles, including 1.5 TFLs. In addition, he was credited with 7 PBUs and 3 interceptions. Webb is very sure-handed, and as the season progressed, he started catching more balls. He also serves as Missouri’s holder on field goals and PATs, and at Indiana, he ran out of a fake field goal for 3 yards and a first down.
Heading into fall camp, senior Matt White was listed as one of Missouri’s starting safeties. He managed to hold off the challengers, started all 14 games, and had the best season of his career. On the season, White made 61 tackles, forced a fumble, recovered a fumble, made an interception, and was credited with 4 PBUs. Still, he got picked on, and the road to success against the Missouri defense usually went through White. The fifth-year senior had mastered his assignments, and he was pretty much always in the right vicinity, even if he didn’t always make the play.
One of White’s challengers for the starting job at safety was sophomore Ian Simon, who ended up being a regular while playing in the nickel personnel package for the Tigers. On the season, Simon played in 13 games, made 5 starts, and finished with 42 tackles, including 3.5 TFLs. He was also credited with 1 QBH, 5 PBUs, and 1 INT.
Junior-college transfer Duron Singleton arrived late in fall camp, and a crash course ensued in an attempt to get the junior safety up to speed. After just a couple of days, and as the opener quickly approached, it was decided that Singleton would focus on learning to play the nickel and that he would also play on special teams. That worked quite well, as Singleton stood out on special teams, and he was beginning to earn the trust of the coaching staff at the nickel position. In the middle of the season, he played increasingly at the nickel, and he stood out at Kentucky.
The plan had been to for Singleton to take over the nickel back position, so Simon could split time in a rotation with White. And following Singleton’s performance at Kentucky, safeties Coach Alex Grinch seemed ready to implement that plan. But, Singleton was injured at practice that week, and he missed the next 2 games, so the Tigers were never able to get Singleton into the role that they had envisioned for him this season. What Singleton did do though, was to show everyone that he can be a quality safety. He’s a talent. He can run, and he’s a big hitter to boot. On the season, he made 23 tackles, including 2 TFLs, and he forced a fumble, in addition to registering 1 PBU.
Sophomore safety Cortland Browning played in all 14 games for Missouri this year, almost entirely on special teams, where he made 4 tackles on the season.
Junior safety Daniel Easterly played in 9 games on special teams, and RSF safety Chaston Ward came on in the second half of the season, and saw action on special teams in 6 games. In addition, senior walk-on safety Tyler Davis was rewarded with some special teams’ duty on Senior Night against Texas A&M.