Smaller in stature, E.J. Gaines can be as big as they come on the football field.
Listed at a generous 5 feet, 10 inches, Missouri’s junior cornerback plays like he has the size that most football players dream of. Sure, genetics have helped with his athleticism and speed, but his relentless attitude and thirst for physicality make up for what he loses with his height.
Gaines, who earned All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore, embraces his smaller frame because it gives quarterbacks a false sense of security. He might not look like he can match up with bigger, taller receivers, but his play quickly proves otherwise. Gaines, who salivates over one-on-one matchups, prefers battling bigger opponents.
“I loved it,” Gaines said, flashing a child-like smile. “Anytime you’re on the field, especially at this level, you have to love competition. You have to love them coming at you. Every time I went out there, I knew they were coming at me.”
While he liked it, it had to be a bit frustrating for his counterparts. Gaines only recorded two interceptions, but he led the Big 12 with 16 pass breakups. That’s pretty good for someone residing in the nation’s most pass-happy league.
As Gaines prepares to take his act to more ground-oriented conference, he understands there will be new challenges, like having to play in the box more and taking on what he believes will be more physical receivers.
But adapting to change is nothing new for Gaines, who has added 10 pounds from last year, weighing in at 195. He went from wanting to be a basketball star to playing running back before picking cornerback. Playing both offense and defense in high school, Gaines fell for corner during his junior year at Fort Osage High in Independence, Mo., when one of his close friends nearly broke his football spirits.
Lining up against the shifty and “definitely faster” Marvell Saffold, who now plays at Missouri State, Gaines suffered his share of embarrassment. Saffold, who had some size on him back then, consistently caught passes and made plays on him. The more the ball came his way, the worse Gaines looked.
It got to the point where Gaines almost gave up defense all together. That was until a break went his way -- one pass got to Gaines first and he ripped it out of the air for an interception. That moment not only triggered a solid finish to Gaines’ day, but also boosted his morale and made him hungry for more.
“That’s when my confidence level went out the roof,” he said.
And it stayed with him at Missouri.
Senior receiver T.J. Moe said he knew instantly during two-a-days during Gaines’ freshman year that he’d be a real player. He was simply outworking people and showed tremendous speed, agility and instincts. It reminded him of former Nebraska standout corner Prince Amukamara, who gave Moe fits when he was around.
“E.J.’s got that same talent where he can be running full speed one way and stop and still knock the ball down,” Moe said.
“He’s got a really, really special ability.
“Phil Steele thinks there are 42 better corners than him, but I probably disagree with that one.”
Gaines’ speed is something that made him deadly in the Big 12, but he admits he must control it in the SEC. He’s so used to shorter, three-step drops and quicker passes from quarterbacks that he has a tendency to jump passes early. From the SEC film he’s seen, he’s noticed that those drops are longer and the ball comes out later and goes more downfield.
Making sure he doesn’t jump too early will be crucial, he said, meaning he’ll have to do a little more meticulous film work to master the timing of opposing quarterbacks.
Regardless, Gaines expects those quarterbacks to gun for him. He’ll have to prove himself all over again, and he's ready.
“It’s obvious that I’m 5-10, 5-11, so they’re definitely going to come at me on deep balls,” he said. “None of that really matters if your technique is right.
“I’m always up for a challenge.”