This island they keep referring to, that’s it: inches from the face mask’s rubber-draped metal, just a step or two worth of land between a man against a man, just a shared glare into the other’s eye. This is where E.J. Gaines wanted to be all along, because this was the place he was clearly meant to be.
“It’s perfectly fine,” the junior cornerback said. “I can take the criticism. It’s perfectly fine.”
It’s just the crack of the snap and the chaos that follows. There’s the crash of the bodies up front, and there’s the blur on the edges, out on this island, where the time for reaction comes abruptly and without regard.
“When you play a position like corner … it just makes you or breaks you,” Gaines said.
The island is brutal. It welcomes invaders. On Saturday afternoon, Missouri was sprung into a trap early. On its first Southeastern Conference road trip to a different Columbia, the Tigers stepped into uncharted and unwelcome territory in South Carolina. Gaines had to make his island regardless of it all.
Regardless of an early onslaught, regardless of the clock ticking away time before relief and a locker room at the half, the Gamecocks gutted through his team and went 50 yards after the punt.
Thirty seconds before halftime. Gaines lines up with Ace Sanders, a dreadlocked speedster. The snap.
“My footwork wasn’t right,” Gaines said. “My technique wasn’t right.”
At the line, in a blink, Sanders shimmies right. Gaines feigns slightly left. Sanders cuts back, slashing around Gaines like a piercing dart.
“Over and over again,” Gaines said. “I’ve watched it a lot of times.”
The clock says 26 seconds now. Sanders has advanced 23 yards, the ball is in his hands now in the end zone and Gaines has been relinquished, just steps away.
And that’s when Gaines was most visible in the Tigers’ 31-10 dismantling. The CBS cameras showed a celebrating Sanders and then a close-up of Gaines chewing a yellow mouthguard, walking back to his sideline.
“That’s just what comes with the job that we have to do,” Gaines said. “And they tell you that before you start playing this position. That’s what’s gonna happen. People see everything that’s out there on the island.”
It’s not always so visible. In four games, his team-leading four pass-breakups can be overlooked. The plays where opposing quarterbacks shift their gaze elsewhere, not daring to flirt with the section of the field belonging to last season’s all-Big 12 Conference performer, they can be vanquished. They can go unnoticed behind, perhaps, the sack that was made possible.
On Saturday, Gaines was beat.
“It’s very rare you see a ball completed towards him, and you know he made a fundamental error,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “… When you’re out there all by yourself and you’re covering a receiver, you’re on an island all by yourself, and your major mistakes will get exposed.”
What doesn’t get exposed are the things that happened under the summer’s heat in August, when Gaines went toe-to-toe with senior receiver Marcus Lucas on a daily basis, when he was coming off his school record-breaking 2011 and when questions went his way about expectations.
“You can't be complacent with your stats or anything from last year,” he said after one practice. “It’s a new year, a new season in a new conference. I got to make more plays.”
Whenever Pinkel mentioned him, it had to do with consistency.
“He always practices well,” Pinkel said. “I don’t ever remember (coaches) saying he just didn’t play very well today. It never comes up. He always shows up.”
At one point Saturday, within the frame of four seconds, Gaines gave up the property he prides himself of protecting. There was the reaction of his foe and there was the reaction of himself.
“I think E.J. Gaines is a great cornerback who’s really special, and he’s a human being who every once in a while makes a mistake,” defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said.
There was his play, and there was the play of his teammates. The Gamecocks rammed through arm tackles. On the other side, the Tigers mustered just 255 yards of total offense.
Gaines came to Missouri out of high school as a part-time running back and part-time cornerback and eventually gravitated to this island. There are plays like Saturday that happen, and the moments leading up to them come back to him like a nightmare.
“Any time you get beat, it just kind of floats in your head,” he said. “That’s another thing you got to teach yourself to do: let things go.”