COLUMBIA — For Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines, two of the most important things his coaches ask him to do sound a lot easier than they actually are.
Rule No. 1: See football. See receiver. Actually see football come toward receiver.
Rule No. 2: In case any parts of Rule No. 1 go awry, forget about it. Now.
Gaines is a first-year starter who impressed coaches during his limited playing time as a freshman last year. He has followed the rules better than any other defender in the Missouri football team's secondary so far this season.
That's not saying much. Missouri has given up 1,050 passing yards, third-worst in the Big 12 Conference. Part of the blame falls on the defensive line, which has not pressured opposing quarterbacks nearly as often as was expected. But all of Gaines' teammates in the secondary — fellow cornerbacks Kip Edwards and Trey Hobson and safeties Matt White and Kenji Jackson — have given up big-yardage plays and pass interference penalties.
So has Gaines. He broke Rule No. 1 a few times in the first game against Miami (Ohio) and was flagged for it once. The next week, in the Tigers' game against Arizona State, he struggled to disrupt the game of catch played between Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler and his receivers.
Better than anyone else, though, Gaines has followed the second rule. Against Oklahoma two weeks ago, he broke up multiple passes thrown by Heisman Trophy contender Landry Jones. He also blitzed from slot coverage, hurrying Jones as much as any defensive lineman.
Gaines has moved on. When Missouri returns to conference play against Kansas State on Saturday, his teammates in the secondary will try to do the same.
"The coaches always teach the secondary as a whole that you got to have a short memory," Gaines said. "It really is easier said than done, (but) I've had bad games before Arizona State."
They are also working on remembering to turn their heads when the ball is in the air. Edwards said that failing to slow receivers at the line of scrimmage can cause such gaffes down field. Sometimes knowing when to turn their eyes back toward the quarterback can also prove difficult because, according to Gaines, each quarterback throws the ball at a different point on routes.
But the cornerbacks said that with the expected level of focus, knowing where the ball is at all times should not be a problem.
"We get paid to cover, we don’t get paid to get penalties," Edwards said. "You got to keep contained, keep everything in front of you, and don't lose leverage."
Gaines had trouble slowing Arizona State's wide receivers at the line of scrimmage and fell at an immediate disadvantage. When Missouri played Oklahoma, Jones and his favorite wide receiver, Ryan Broyles, connected for 154 yards and three touchdowns, but that was despite a fine effort by Gaines. Midway through the second quarter, Gaines anticipated a fade route to Broyles. He turned around, located the ball and leaped to knock down a well-thrown pass.
A few plays later, Jones hit Broyles for a touchdown. Did it make Gaines' earlier play irrelevant? Not according to Hobson, who especially struggled against the Sooners but said he learned something from the way Gaines bounced back from the Arizona State game.
"That's what you have to do," Hobson said. "Things happen, and you have to keep moving. Every corner we have has probably given up a big play this year. To be honest, it's not going to be the last time any get beat. That's the sad truth, but that's what it is."
Against Kansas State, Missouri faces a team that runs the ball more than two-thirds of the time, an anomaly in the Big 12.
The Tigers secondary mostly faces questions about how it will anticipate the run, particularly when Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein (105.8 rushing yards per game) leaves the pocket. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said that the secondary is even more vulnerable to long passes because of the emphasis on the run game.
Given the secondary's tendency to make mental errors so far this season, position coach Cornell Ford has reiterated the importance of staying alert. See the ball. See the receiver. Be ready, however unlikely, for the ball to come toward the receiver.
"They don't really pass the ball that much, but we can't let it put us to sleep," Gaines said. "The secondary still has to make plays."
When it comes to Rule No. 2, Pinkel wants Gaines to forget the good plays, too. He said the sophomore could be "remarkably better" given his talents.
"He just needs to have the drive to be the best," Pinkel said. "He can never be satisfied with his performance. He should have a super-high expectation level for himself."