E.J. Gaines was not only the best member of the Missouri Tigers secondary this past year, but a captain for one of the best defenses in the country and a team that improved its record from 2012 by 7 games. The Tigers were one of the biggest surprises of the season and had a shot to not only win the SEC but also to go to the National Championship. Gaines and this group of seniors went out with a win in the Cotton Bowl.
Gaines gives some insight into the mindset of this season as well as how the Missouri defense operates. We also discussed his potential in the NFL, the amount of different opponents he went up against between the SEC and Big XII and what people may expect from the team next year.
Peter Smith: How long have you been committed to Missouri? Was this like a 12 or 13 years old type thing, because from what I read, you were committed almost from the word ‘go’.
E.J. Gaines: Yea, I mean, not that young, because I lived in Oklahoma for a while, so I was actually a (Oklahoma)Sooners fan. But after I was about 16, 17, I started watching the games, watching them play and I just became a fan. So after I got the offer from them, I knew that was where I wanted to go.
PS: Help me out. It seems like your defensive scheme wants to put as much pressure on the opponent with the guys up front and use a lot of zone, quarters or cloud coverage to keep plays in front of you and wait for the opponent to make a mistake.
EJ: Yea. I mean that has a lot to do with our defensive scheme. Having a great front four like you have and also a great secondary, there are a lot of different things you can do to try to confuse their offensive coordinator and quarterback.
PS: With the way you run zone on the outside, it looked like when you moved to nickel, you slid inside to man up the slot. Is that about right?
EJ: Yea. We actually play quite a bit of man outside until we go to the nickel and then we play a little bit more man inside. So it just depends on you know, different teams, we got different schemes for them. But we did play, like you said cloud, a lot of Cover-2, and obviously quite a bit of man too.
PS: At what point did you, your teammates know this season was going to be special?
EJ: I would say that the seniors and the captains knew before it even happened. As soon as camp started, we could just see sort of the chip that was on our shoulder from the year before. The seniors, the leaders, and the captains weren’t gonna let that happen again.
PS: Since you were a Sooner fan growing up, how satisfying was it for you to be able to finish your collegiate career by beating their biggest rival and Missouri’s former rival in Oklahoma State?
EJ: Oh, man, it was crazy thinking about that being my last game as a Tiger, but it was a great game, great competition and like you said, going back to the Big XII and kinda show what we were since going to the SEC, it was definitely fun.
PS: And since you were a freshman and contributed all four years, how big was it for you to be a part of beating then #6 Oklahoma?
EJ: That was one of my most memorable games. Playing a team like that and especially as young as I was, getting to contribute any way I could, it was kinda like a dream come true. I was like 18 years when I went out there and got to play them for the first time.
PS: How much of an adjustment was it to prepare and study for the SEC as opposed to the Big XII in term?
EJ: I would say it was a lot different just because of the Pro-Style that the SEC runs versus the Spread that the Big XII runs. And just preparing a lot more for the run game and getting downhill and getting your linebackers downhill. We even had to change our secondary as far as getting the secondary into the running game a lot more when we switched to the SEC from the Big XII. It took a while to get used to, but as you can see, we definitely finished it off right.
PS: Do you feel like two years in each conference has helped you to be more prepared for the next level?
EJ: Oh, definitely. Definitely. I feel like it came at just the right time, especially as a cornerback. Being able to defend the pass in the Big XII, showing you can play man coverage against some of the best quarterbacks and some of the best receivers. And then moving to the SEC and showing your physical enough to go against those larger receivers and get in on the running game a little bit. It just definitely showed my versatility and what I could do on the football field.
PS: If I pegged you as a zone corner, would that be fair or would I be selling you short?
EJ: Oh, that’s selling me short. I don’t think that you could peg me as one type of football player. I don’t think if you said I was only a cornerback, I would be like no, I can go inside and play the nickel, play physical, maybe even move back, play a little bit of safety. There is definitely a lot more to me than man or zone or just cornerback.
PS: Have you gotten any teams hinting at the idea of you being a safety?
EJ: No, but a lot of them have pegged me as a nickelback, coming in and they need a starter as their nickel. Nickel isn’t too much different than coming in and playing safety. You have to roll down, play a lot of man coverage on the slot guys. I think that’s what a lot of the teams do like about me. Coming in, I think that I’ll start somewhere at nickelback and work my way up.
PS: What’s been the change in Columbia on that campus with the success you’ve had throughout this season and the difference between how you got there and how you’re leaving it?
EJ: Yea, I mean when I got there, Missouri was already winning football games and winning a lot of them under Coach(Gary) Pinkel , so it hadn’t really changed much. If anything, I would say it came closer because of the bad season my junior year, our first year in the SEC. Missouri kind of came together after taking some of the heat from around the nation. And then the explosive season we had this year; it just made it that much better.
PS: Why did you stop returning punts? You had a nice average and a touchdown as a sophomore.
EJ: Yea, that is something I would love to do, but when you have an All-American back there in Marcus Murphy, there is not much I can argue with that. That’s just a great football player and he was really made to do special teams, return man. When you watch him, play, man it is just crazy to even watch him, so I couldn’t be mad about that. He did let me get back there and let me catch a few even after he was the starter.
PS: How disappointing was it to miss the South Carolina game given what ultimately happened at the end of that one?
EJ: Oh, that was tough, man. Especially being a captain, a leader on the football team, it was kind of eating me up inside. Even in the Florida game that I missed, even though we won, you just want to be out there with your guys, lead your football team.
And also, I would have been in there on that play. Maybe I could have made a play for our defense, for our football team to help us win that game. But it’s something that you know as a captain, let that go and get on to the next football game.
PS: Did you ever feel powerless in the game against Auburn?
EJ: No, I wouldn’t say powerless. I would say it was more of a pride thing with our defense because we knew if we could have gotten more stops that football game that we could have won it. But we’re a football team and we don’t win or lose a game by offense or defense. The defense, being how tough we are, how good we are, we know we could have stopped that offense. Not being able to do it that game was definitely tough on us because we ended up losing.