Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Missouri’s defense has been the Tigers’ stronger side of the ball this season, so it’s only natural that it would lend the offense a hand. Or, better yet, a pair of them.
True freshman Cam Hilton converted from strong safety to H receiver for the Tigers’ game last Saturday against South Carolina. He showed his skills early, catching a 9-yard pass from Drew Lock for the first third-down conversion of the game.
“He made a great move, he got open,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “Actually, the ball was thrown ahead of him a little bit. He made a great catch, and if he’d have caught the thing on stride he might’ve gained 35 yards.”
After the game, Lock regretted the off-target throw but was happy he was able to complete a pass to his fellow true freshman.
“I saw him wide open,” Lock said. “I wish I could’ve given him a better ball, because he could’ve done something, but I was more jittery. I was like, ‘I’ve got to get my man the ball.’ But I’m excited. He’s a playmaker, and we’ll see what he does from now on.”
Offensive coordinator Josh Henson expects Hilton to continue to make the difficult catches.
“He has tremendous hands,” Henson said. “He really catches the ball well, and when the ball gets close to him, he’s pretty much going to catch it.”
Hilton played wide receiver at Webster Groves High School in St. Louis. Missouri decided to forgo redshirting him for a season, but he was listed as the Tigers’ sixth safety and Pinkel felt he could be better used in a receiving corps that lost its three leading targets from 2014.
Henson said Hilton has done a good job of learning the offense the past two weeks.
“Cam’s been great,” he said. “He just wants to go wherever he can help the team. … We just felt like right now that maybe (offense) is where he could help us more immediately.”
Hilton is currently listed as Missouri’s third-string H receiver, behind Nate Brown and Ray Wingo, another converted defensive back.
“The transition is difficult,” Pinkel said, “but I think for a guy like (Hilton), it’s going to be easier than most, because he’s smart, he’s very worldly … he’s a very confident young guy, and it’s just exciting that he can get in and help us a little bit.”
Hilton also took on duties as Missouri’s punt returner last Saturday. He took his first return of the game deep into South Carolina territory, but the play was brought back for just a 10-yard gain on a block-in-the-back penalty against Clarence Green.
“He understands space, you saw him on punt returns getting back there,” Pinkel said. “We had a real long one called back, and we didn’t think that was called right. We’ll get a ruling on it so we can coach it the right way. It’d be nice if we could get that.”
That, meaning production at the punt return position. Entering last Saturday’s game the Tigers were averaging just 7.8 yards per punt return. Missouri is still trying to fill the void left by the graduation of Southeastern Conference special teams player of the year Marcus Murphy.
If all goes well with Hilton — whose name was listed ahead of co-starter Aarion Penton at punt returner this week — the safety-turned-receiver could perhaps help Missouri most on a third side of the ball.