Missouri’s wide receivers have heard the chatter.
They know that a lack of experience at the position is expected to subvert the Tigers’ chances to win a third straight SEC East title.
“We definitely hear it, but we try not to pay attention to it too much,” sophomore slot receiver Nate Brown said. “We try to stick to what we know, stick to the system and going out and getting better. If anything, that just motivates us.”
Missouri’s most accomplished returning pass-catchers are junior tight end Sean Culkin, who finished with 20 receptions for 174 yards and a touchdown last season, and senior running back Russell Hansbrough, who had 11 catches for 58 yards.
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Among the wide receivers, Brown is the most accomplished returning player. He had five catches for 45 yards last season as a true freshman.
The group’s only senior, Wesley Leftwich, had three receptions for 36 yards, and sophomore J’Mon Moore managed two catches for 33 yards last season. That’s the extent of the production the Tigers return at wideout.
“We hear people talk about our lack of experience a lot, but we all know that we have great talent and we’re very diverse in the receiver room,” said redshirt freshman DeSean Blair, who is working with the first team at X receiver. “We’re just ready to show what we have to offer. … I’m very confident that hard work we’ve been putting in in the weight room and since the spring is going to show.”
Ten of the Tigers’ top 13 wide receivers are sophomores or younger, including eight freshmen or redshirt freshmen. The only two juniors, Jake Brents and Eric Laurent, are walk-ons.
“You had to remind me of that,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel joked when it was brought up at a recent practice. “... But there’s a lot of good athletes there. There’s no question about that. There’s talented guys. We’ve got to select the guys that we think can keep getting better as the season goes on and can go out and make plays and be physical enough and mentally tough enough to play.”
Before the dust settles, that group is expected to include one or more from a quartet of incoming freshman — Justin Smith, a 6-foot-7 prospect from Georgia; Johnathon Johnson, an explosive playmaker from Memphis, Tenn.; Emanuel Hall, a polished route-runner from suburban Nashville, Tenn.; and Richaud Floyd, a speedy converted quarterback from Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.
“We’re loading them up with our playbook right now, so some of those guys, their heads are spinning right now,” MU wide receivers coach Pat Washington said. “It’s not fair to them really, because their heads are spinning, but we have to move on and they have to try to follow us as fast as possible. The guys that can do it are usually the ones that end up playing in the long run.”
Johnson and Floyd are working as slot receivers, with Smith and Hall getting reps on the outside. Washington said the Tigers could use depth at all three positions in the base offense.
“You see athleticism,” MU offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “You see guys running by people and coming in and out of cuts, making nice catches with their hands. I think the talent’s there. … We didn’t know (last) August that Bud (Sasser) was going to be an All-SEC wide receiver and have 1,000 yards receiving. He stepped up when our team needed him, and someone will step up at this point and make things happen.”
Brown said he plans to be one of those guys, but he can’t do it alone.
“It’s a matter of recognizing that, here’s what we’ve got and we can only play the guys in the room,” Brown said. “Everybody’s got to step up and everybody’s got to raise their game to another level, so we can win some games.”
Henson said he’s beginning to see more consistency from the receivers after dropped passes plagued the first few camp practices, but Saturday’s scrimmage will be the most telling indicator of who stands out and is ready to step up.
“The scrimmages are always telling,” he said. “You get those young guys in there, and they get in a live situation. You get out there without the coaches giving you little tips and reminders about what to do, so you really get a good feel for where they’re at and how they’re going to play on gameday.”