Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — For a player who began the year with three career catches, Wesley Leftwich sure does have a lot of experience. At least, that’s what his teammates and coaches say.
“Experience,” head coach Gary Pinkel said when asked what Leftwich brings to the table. “Last year he played quite a bit.”
While Leftwich did in fact start four games last season, he had catches in just two of them, totaling 36 yards.
“It’s nice to have somebody who’s been here longer than you, because … you’re not going to know everything,” sophomore receiver J’Mon Moore said before the season. “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.”
“He’s a big player, he’s a senior, so that’s always really, really good to have an older guy in there,” freshman receiver Emanuel Hall added.
The reason for the talk? An abundance of youth among the receiving corps makes the “Sr.” alongside Leftwich’s name practically jump off the page. Missouri sports four redshirt freshmen at the receiver position, plus Hall, a true freshman. Eric Laurent is the only junior.
As a redshirt senior, Leftwich is practically ancient.
“It’s weird,” he said. “I’ve been here for half a decade, and when you put it that way it seems like a long time. Definitely a lot of young cats, but all of them have so much talent that it’s fine with me, because if they can make plays then it’s fine to be out there on the field. Like I said, I’m the old guy, I know what it takes, so I just try to teach them that every day, so next year when they’re a pretty young group they’re able to perform.”
Much was made of Leftwich’s leadership as the Tigers entered the year without their three leading receivers from last year, all graduated seniors.
“I mean, I don’t have (that) much experience either but I’ve been around for a while,” Leftwich said. “I’ve been able to see the past starters and what they do, so this camp I really just tried to do more of a vocal role. I’m not that much of a vocal person, so that was a challenge for me, but I definitely think I was doing a pretty good job.”
But as Leftwich showed against Arkansas State last Saturday, his hands will be just as important as his mouth. Leftwich caught a 32-yard touchdown in the third quarter to tie the game at 17. It was his first career touchdown.
“It’s just kind of addictive,” Leftwich said. “Once I got my first one I was just really wanting another one. It was great to have it, but it’s just going to push me more to get that feeling of getting to be in the end zone.”
Leftwich missed the season opener with a sprained knee suffered Aug. 20 in a scrimmage. In his first game back, Leftwich showed just what he can bring to Missouri’s offense. In his lone catch of the day, he streaked down the sideline, outrunning his defender before he leaped at the 3-yard line and hauled in the touchdown pass.
“He’s got great speed,” Pinkel said. “He can run. He’s got great foot-speed, so we’ve just got to take advantage of it and get him opportunities to catch long balls.”
Leftwich doesn’t mind the job.
“Any length of ball that comes, I’ll take, but definitely the deep ball is my favorite,” he said. “Because that’s what gets the momentum going for the team, and so if you can make a deep play, it’s just that much better for the offense.”
Of course, he still does have duties as the position group’s only senior. After a game with more than a few dropped passes, the young receiving corps has plenty to work on.
“The whole catching the ball thing is really just a focus issue,” Leftwich said. “We’ve just got to come to practice every day and catch every ball. It’s more of a habit than anything, so if we do it at practice every day, then it should be that much easier during the game. We just need to focus more and make those plays. If we make those plays, the game’s not as close as it was.”
Though he’s the only senior, Leftwich won’t be the only receiver needed to step up in the passing game. Moore was Missouri’s leading receiver against Southeast Missouri State and Nate Brown’s 46 yards Saturday were the most among Tiger wide receivers.
And if all goes to plan, Leftwich won’t be the only one to take charge off the field, either.
“I told the group that anybody can lead,” he said. “Just because I’m the oldest doesn’t mean I’m the only one that should be talking. It’s open for everybody to talk, but I’ve been around the longest, so I know what it takes to get this team where it needs to be and to get these wideouts where they need to be. I think it’s essential that I just keep the guys positive and tell them what they need to hear and just get it going.”