By Joe Vozzelli
Randy Ponder learned Saturday that amnesia could be a good thing in college football.
In Missouri’s last game against Syracuse, the 5-foot-10-inch redshirt junior cornerback made what looked like a game-changing play. With the game tied at 24 and less than five minutes left, Ponder intercepted a deflected pass from Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. He returned the ball 11 yards to set the Missouri offense up at midfield.
After the play, Missouri players swarmed around Ponder. Some of his teammates jumped on top of him, while others slapped his helmet to congratulate him for the interception. Ponder doesn’t always receive this treatment. After all, last Saturday’s interception was only the second of his Missouri career.
Missouri would score six plays later on a 46-yard Andrew Baggett field goal to take the lead at 27-24.
But, on Syracuse’s next drive, the Orange would repeatedly pick on Ponder, who was matched up against Syracuse’s best receiver, Alec Lemon, for much of that drive. On a fourth down play, Ponder was a step behind Lemon and tugged on the receiver’s jersey in an attempt to slow him down. Lemon caught the pass but Ponder was still flagged for a holding penalty. The officials, though, mistakenly called it on linebacker Will Ebner, even though he wasn’t covering Lemon on that particular play.
“Playing defensive back, there’s going to be ups and downs. You just have to fight your way through,” Ponder said.
And you have to learn to forget about the bad plays quickly.
Heading into the game Ponder knew covering Lemon would be a hard assignment. Ponder was blunt about how he performed.
“I had to step my game up and at the end I came up short,” he said.
Ponder’s nickel back position — the third defensive back on the depth chart — is much different than that of starting cornerbacks Kip Edwards or E.J. Gaines.
Edwards and Gaines usually cover the outside receivers. Ponder may be responsible for covering the inside as well as tight ends or tailbacks, when they go out for passing routes.
The multi-faceted nature of being a nickel back demands extra time in the film room, Ponder said.
Before Ponder could be Missouri’s nickel back, he had to learn the defensive back position first. That may seem simple, but Ponder didn’t play cornerback in high school. He was a running back at Santa Fe High School in Edmond, Okla.
He also came to Missouri without the security of an athletic scholarship. Ponder decided to walk-on at MU, passing on scholarships offers from Air Force, New Mexico and Tulsa.
He redshirted the 2009 season, participating on the scout team, and was limited to special teams duties in his redshirt freshman season of 2010.
Ponder said he switched from running back to cornerback mostly because Missouri already had a lot of depth at tailback. When Ponder came to the program in 2009, Missouri’s tailback depth chart included Derrick Washington, De’Vion Moore and Kendial Lawrence. It was unlikely Ponder would have seen much playing time at tailback.
Before Ponder could become a reliable corner, he had to learn an entirely new skill: how to backpedal, something that running backs don’t normally do, unless they want their days at running back to be short lived.
Ponder didn’t have anywhere to hide at practice while he learned his new position. He recalled one time when he was matched up against L’Damian Washington — one of Missouri’s fastest wide receivers. He had just started his transition to the cornerback position and L’Damian Washington blew right by him.
Kevin Rutland, who was one of Missouri’s starting cornerbacks at the time, took Ponder aside and gave him a lesson.
“He told me ‘You better open up and run,’” Ponder said.
Rutland, whom Ponder called his “big brother,” was trying to tell Ponder to open up his hips, something that’s key to the backpedaling technique of a cornerback.
Ponder isn’t the only player on Missouri’s current defensive roster that switched from tailback to cornerback. Gaines played cornerback and running back at Fort Osage High School in Independence, Mo.
Even though he played cornerback in high school, Gaines said the hardest part of playing corner in college is just the speed of the receivers.
With Edwards graduating after this season, Ponder could be taking over as Missouri’s starting cornerback next season.
“Right now, at this time, I would say he’s the natural guy that would be in that position,” said Missouri cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford.
The Edmond, Okla., native already has some experience as the starting cornerback.
When Edwards sustained a strained neck against Kentucky and left the game in the third quarter, Ponder had to fill in, something he did well. He finished the game with six tackles.
Ponder says he felt comfortable because he studies both the cornerback and nickel back positions before each game.
Gaines said he has seen progress in Ponder’s game during the season, before saying that Ponder needs more time to develop.
“Randy’s in the middle of where he’s going to be,” he said. “I think he’s going to be a great player before he leaves here. You’re just getting a glimpse of him right now.”
Ford agreed with Gaines’ assessment, adding that Ponder needs to be more consistent.
“Some weeks he shows up really big time and other weeks you don’t notice him as much,” he said. “And, the big-time players, you notice them every week.”
Ponder has been much more physical at cornerback as he’s become more comfortable at the position, Ford said. Ponder has also leveled some bone-crunching hits against opponents lately.
On a third-and-2 play against Syracuse, Ponder shed a blocker and rushed toward Orange tailback Prince-Tyson Gulley. He wrapped his arms around Gulley and drove him backward for a 2-yard loss.
Ponder said he enjoys the physical aspect of being a corner.
“As far as making the big hit or big play and having the crowd say ‘Oh and ah,’ I like it (this position),” he said.
Unlike at tailback, he won’t get his stats or name in the newspaper every week. He’ll only get notoriety when he makes a mistake. But Ponder is fine with that. He knows how hard it was to make this transition.
So, the Oklahoman who walked on at Missouri as a tailback, thinking he’d receive cheers for breaking a long touchdown run, is now excited to see Missouri fans cheer for him when he levels a huge hit.
There’s only one thing left for Ponder to complete the journey: watch the video board at Faurot Field before next season’s opener against Murray State and see his likeness on the screen as Missouri’s starting cornerback.
Ponder won’t want to forget that moment.