Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Thirty-two catches were made by Missouri wide receivers in the Tigers’ first fall scrimmage Saturday. That might not sound like a noteworthy statistic, considering the Tigers ran 172 plays by coach Gary Pinkel’s count.
But at least it’s more than 10.
That’s the number of career receptions shared by Missouri’s current receiving corps.
Of the Tigers’ 2,648 passing yards last season, 2,073 were hauled in by Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, who have all since graduated. This year, a sophomore and a redshirt freshman are currently tabbed as starters, and lone senior Wesley Leftwich has just three collegiate catches to his name.
Needless to say, there is no shortage of opportunity for players to prove themselves this year in the Tigers’ passing game.
“It’s a young group of guys. We also, in about a (seven)-month period of time we had to dismiss three guys from our” program, said Pinkel, referring to booted receivers Dorial Green-Beckham, Levi Copelin and Lawrence Lee. “So this kind of was created through attrition, and you have to just deal with it and work with it.”
The inexperienced group made a big stride in the scrimmage. Three wide receivers — Leftwich, freshman Justin Smith and redshirt freshman Raymond Wingo — caught touchdowns and Smith, freshman Johnathon Johnson and sophomore J’Mon Moore each hauled in a catch of at least 60 yards.
“I thought it was a step in the right direction,” offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “By no means are we like, ‘Hey, boy, everything’s great.’ We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Some of that work is figuring out which players will start when Missouri’s season begins Sept. 5 against Southeast Missouri. Leftwich is currently listed as the starting Z receiver, and sophomore Nate Brown, whose five catches are tops among the position group, is slated as the H receiver. Moore sits behind redshirt freshman DeSean Blair at the X spot, which will likely house one of the tightest position battles.
“Competing within that X position just makes you want to go just a little bit harder,” Moore said. “Because you know you’re competing for a starting spot.”
Blair added: “I love the competition. Me and him are good friends. We battle out each other, but we go in the locker room (and) we’re still friends.”
Moore, who has 33 yards on two career catches, had been atop the depth chart earlier in the summer. A behavioral incident with a coach likely have played a role in his move to second string.
Despite his underclassman status, Moore knows he is expected to act like a leader.
“I knew I had to mature as the years went on,” he said. “So with the younger guys coming in and me getting older, it’s just, I have to soak in everything that I learned from the old heads. … Stepping up is part of what you have to do.”
Moore led all receivers with 105 yards Saturday. However, he suffered a setback in practice Monday when he injured his shoulder. Pinkel did not know the severity of the injury, but later that evening Moore tweeted “I take three steps forward and I get knocked back a thousand.”
Blair had just one catch in the scrimmage, a 13-yard gain, but he made a notable snag earlier in the week. When the Tigers practiced last Monday at Faurot Field, Blair made an acrobatic catch on a Maty Mauk throw of 40-plus yards that popped off his chest and somehow found its way back into his fingertips. The play earned Top 10 status on SportsCenter that night.
“It’s a blessing,” Blair said of making it on ESPN. “I thank the Lord for that.”
He hopes to add some more catches to his highlight reel in his first year. (Albeit with a slight tweak: “Catch it the first time, though,” he said.) With the lack of depth, Blair will likely be playing alongside some more first-year players this fall.
True freshmen Smith and Johnson made some noise with their big plays Saturday, though Johnson’s didn’t have a happy ending. He severely strained his ankle when he was tackled and is out indefinitely.
“Hopefully he can get back as soon as he can,” Henson said. “Before that, he’s really done a nice job. Explosive player. Really fast. Really good hands. I think he had a good feel for playing the game.”
Should the 6-foot-7, 200-pound Smith see the field his freshman year, he would be the only receiver taller than 6-foot-3.
“He’s got to work on his speed,” senior cornerback Aarion Penton said. “But his hands are good, and he’s good at sizing up the ball and boxing smaller defenders out so he can make sure he catches the ball.”
Meanwhile, the speedy Leftwich adds another component in short supply: years of experience with Missouri’s offense.
“You’re not going to know everything,” Moore said. “So having somebody older, if there’s something that you don’t know, you can always lean on them. They can help you fill in all the empty blanks.”
Though Leftwich has just three catches, one was a key 26-yard gain to help propel Missouri’s comeback win at South Carolina last season — a game in which he got his first career start.
Mauk said he has seen changes in the play of Leftwich, a Hickman High School grad.
“If you look at him in the spring, I don’t think (cornerback Kenya Dennis) even let him off the ball, and now Wesley’s starting to beat him and they’re trading back,” Mauk said. “He’s a guy that really has improved a lot, and we’re going to depend on him. He’s a guy that’s got speed, and we’re going to get the ball to him downfield.
“He’s just playing at a high level, and he’s there every play. … He’s not going three plays, taking two off. He’s playing every play at a high level, and that’s what you want.”