COLUMBIA - E.J. Gaines is like most college football players - the Missouri senior wants to play in the NFL.
While a long shot for many, the cornerback's chances are legitimate. Several mock drafts show him going in the third round, ranked in the top tier at his position.
Gaines could have jumped at the opportunity following Missouri's disastrous 2012 season, a year that saw Gaines rack up 74 tackles, 11 passes defended and one interception while the Tigers slumped to a 5-7 record in their inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference.
But Gaines had something else in mind.
"I was pretty sure that I was going to come back either way to get my degree," Gaines said. "Being the first person in my family (to get a college degree) means a lot to me and means a lot to my family.
"The NFL is going to be there this year hopefully if God sets the opportunity up for me. I didn't think it really made a difference - last year or this year - either way I felt like I'd get the opportunity."
Added Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel: "I talked to him and he just looked and me and said, "Coach, I'm not interested in doing it (going to the NFL).' I said, "I think that's good. I'm glad you're not interested in doing it.' The reason it was is he wanted to be the first one from his family to graduate from college. That says so much about him as a person."
Gaines is on track to earn his bachelor's degree in sports management in December.
Gaines didn't exactly fly under the radar heading into the 2013 season, earning Missouri's lone selection to a preseason media all-Southeastern Conference squad, taking third-team honors.
He's lived up to the hype despite missing two games - against Florida and South Carolina - with a strained quad before returning for Missouri's 31-3 victory against Tennessee last Saturday, a game that saw him notch six tackles and an interception.
"He was real excited," Pinkel said of Gaines' return. "It was one of those things you used to say, "When he's in the huddle you're a better defense,' but nobody ever huddles anymore so you can't say that. When he's on the field there's a sense of confidence.
"He's our best defensive player, certainly coming into this year. It was tough for him to sit out. He's a great competitor. It's neat to see him come in and make some of the plays that he makes, so that's certainly a jump for us from a real positive standpoint."
Gaines was a little more apprehensive about his return.
"A little bit nervous, just not knowing what I could do coming back from an injury like that," he said. "After a few plays and getting my legs under me, I was ready to go."
Gaines has put up strong numbers so far in 2013 with four interceptions and 40 total tackles in seven games. That type of performance is just what the senior was looking for heading into the season.
"I thought if anything I could help me go up to first or second round this year," he said.
Gaines isn't resting on his laurels, though.
"There's always room for improvement for every player on the football field," he said. "No one is the greatest player to ever play football. Just getting out there and working on what I can do and work on my fundamentals and technique to help me at the next level."
Gaines leads a Missouri defense that's tied for second in the nation with 17 interceptions, a number that aids the Tigers' NCAA-leading 39 straight games of forcing at least one turnover.
"I try to be a leader out on there on the football field," Gaines said. "I think (our secondary) is definitely playing at a very high level."
No. 9 Missouri (8-1, 4-1 SEC) looks to extend that streak to 40 when it travels to face Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 SEC) at 11 a.m. Saturday (ESPNU-TV).