Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Wesley Leftwich has never started a home game for the Missouri Tigers. But he’s no stranger to Faurot Field.
The junior receiver, who made his first career start against South Carolina, graduated from Columbia’s Hickman High School. And with starter Darius White still questionable for Missouri’s home game against Georgia, Leftwich could be making his first Faurot Field start since the 2010 Providence Bowl.
That fact is not lost on Leftwich.
“I joke around with Darius. I’m always, ‘Just let me get the start, and you can come in after the first play. Just so I can get in my hometown and be on that (video) board at the beginning,’” Leftwich said, referring to Missouri’s video introductions. “It’s crazy. I haven’t been able to play in front of my hometown for — what’s it been, like four years since high school when I was a senior.”
If Leftwich makes the start, he’ll at least be bringing some valuable experience with him.
Held catchless through the first three quarters of Missouri’s game against South Carolina, Leftwich made a key 26-yard grab in the fourth quarter to put Missouri within 1 yard of a touchdown.
It was a “big confidence booster, just knowing you can do that in a game — especially in a clutch situation in the fourth quarter on that drive,” Leftwich said. “I mean, it’s just huge.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel added: “Anytime you make a big play, you make a great catch, I think your confidence level just surges. I don’t care who you are out there. Especially with a young player. I think it does. It’s great to see him make a play like that.”
The catch came one play after a 41-yard reception by senior co-captain Bud Sasser, which seemed to break Missouri free from a prolonged offensive slumber. The Tigers had failed to do anything but punt, miss a field goal or end a half in their previous 12 drives, but suddenly Missouri had gained more than 25 yards on two straight plays.
“I saw Bud make that play, and he just got it going for us, so I knew they were probably going to roll a safety over there, because he’s our big-play threat,” Leftwich said. “He’s our guy, and I knew everybody’s going to have an opportunity to get open, and I took advantage of it.”
Russell Hansbrough ran in a touchdown one play after Leftwich’s catch to cap a three-play scoring drive and bring Missouri within six points. The Tigers scored again on their next drive to win 21-20.
Leftwich’s reception was already a big play when he fought for about 8 more yards after the catch, barely missing out on his first career touchdown.
“Every time you catch the ball you want to score,” he said. “(We) do that at practice. We’ve got to sprint 10 yards after every catch, just acting like you’re going to score. Any time you see the end zone within reach, you want to get in there. I caught it and just made the first man miss and was trying real hard to get in there, but I just got caught in the backside.”
When White went down with a groin injury in Missouri’s loss to Indiana, Leftwich realized he would be getting more playing time. The day after, he found out he would be starting.
Leftwich, ranked the No. 16 Missouri prospect by Rivals.com, did not come to Missouri with a wealth of experience. Formerly a soccer player, he didn’t start playing organized football until eighth grade.
“Everybody was telling me I had the big build to be playing football,” he said. “… I just thought I’d give it a try, and I was actually a kicker for the first year. Then they saw I was fast so they put me at receiver.”
Once Leftwich began starting at slot receiver his sophomore year of high school, he knew he had a shot to play in college.
Though Leftwich said he has evolved both physically and as a student of the game, he is still part of an inexperienced core of receivers expected to step up this year — especially with the injuries to White and fellow senior Jimmie Hunt.
Pinkel thinks the experience receivers like Leftwich, Lawrence Lee, Gavin Otte and Nate Brown took from the South Carolina win will pay dividends.
“That’s a heck of an arena to be in,” Pinkel said. “So I think for the most part they did a good job.”
Pinkel gave Hunt and White a “greater than 50 percent chance” of playing Saturday.
“It would be awesome, but obviously we want Darius to be back 100 percent,” Leftwich said. “I have no problem being his No. 2 and going in for him when he needs breaks. But if it comes down to it, and I’ve got to do it, I’m ready to do it.”