COLUMBIA — E.J. Gaines never has a bad practice.
According to Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel, it just doesn't happen. There is little criticism of the junior cornerback when the coaches break down his work on film.
When he gets asked about Gaines, Pinkel repeatedly raves about his consistently strong performance. He says things like, "He’s got a gift for playing that position."
Gaines received preseason third-team All-SEC honors and certainly looked strong in training camp, frequently intercepting passes and giving receivers a hard time by shoving them off track as they began their routes.
But last Saturday's game against South Carolina was not a practice. And Gaines did not have his typical strong performance.
With Missouri trailing South Carolina 7-0 in the second quarter, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw found receiver Nick Jones for a 36-yard pass that set up another South Carolina score. Jones slipped down the sideline behind Gaines, who admitted he was supposed to keep the receiver more toward the middle of the field, so safety Kenronte Walker could help with the coverage. Walker was also too far toward the middle of the field, leaving Jones even more open.
"We were just out of our gaps," Gaines said. "It was more of a busted coverage."
Then it got worse.
With 30 seconds left in the first half, Gamecocks' receiver Ace Sanders put Gaines off balance with a move at the line of scrimmage, allowing him to run by the cornerback. Gaines chased him, but it was too late. Sanders caught a touchdown pass to put Missouri behind 21-3 before halftime.
Gaines was not happy with his performance in the game, but he doesn't think he played terribly either.
"I would say I played all right," Gaines said. "Definitely not the game that I wanted to have and not a game that I ever want to have, but I mean, playing corner, you can't name some of the best guys that have never gotten beaten, so I've just got to let it go and have a short-term memory."
Fans might not have had the same evaluation of Gaines' play. Mistakes are often magnified for defensive backs because their slip-ups can easily lead to big plays for the other team.
"That's like lineman," Pinkel said. "The only time you recognize offensive lineman is when their guy they block gets a sack. So they stand out. Corners are the exact same way. Your major mistakes will get exposed."
Gaines doesn't plan on accepting failure, but he understands that every cornerback gets beat. It is just part of the game.
Pinkel isn't worried either. He says Gaines enjoys the difficult challenge of covering a receiver one-on-one.
"It's very rare you ever see a ball completed towards him. He made a couple fundamental errors, and they made some plays," Pinkel said. "I know him. He'll come back and battle through it."