During the spring, Missouri’s passing game seemed inept at times.
There was no rhythm, the Tigers’ collection of young receivers dropped a lot of passes and a veteran secondary bullied them around the field.
By fall camp, things were different.
“They’re pushing back …” senior safety Cortland Browning said. “I’m proud of them. They’re making progress compared to the spring. It’s encouraging. They’re making improvements.”
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Against Southeast Missouri in Saturday’s season opener, which kicks off at 3 p.m. at Memorial Stadium, seven of Missouri’s nine receivers on the depth chart will be sophomores or younger.
The only two juniors, third-stringers Jake Brents and Eric Laurent, are walk-ons.
“I let three receivers go in probably a 15-month period of time,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That happens to programs and could happen because of injuries too. Then, all of the sudden, you kind of have to dig your way out of it. That’s kind of why this happened.”
Sophomores J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown are the Tigers’ starters at X receiver and in the slot. Redshirt freshman Keyon Dilosa is the starting Z receiver with freshman Emanuel Hall, redshirt freshman Thomas Richard and redshirt freshman DeSean Blair serving as the respective backups.
Redshirt freshman and converted defensive back Raymond Wingo is the third-team slot receiver.
“I really like the kids,” Pinkel said. “I think they’re very athletic. We have to be very, very positive as long as we’re getting great focus and great effort.”
Junior quarterback Maty Mauk spent a lot of time during summer seven-on-seven workouts developing chemistry with MU’s receivers and there’s plenty of confidence that effort paid off.
“They are ready,” senior safety and captain Ian Simon said. “The improvement is there. They’re making the tough catches. They’re making the plays that you want to see them make. They’re even making the tough blocks, and doing the baby steps that you need to become great. They are going to take some people by surprise.”
Of course, the true tests begin Saturday against the Redhawks.
“I feel like we are all on the same page for the most part,” Blair said. “There’s always work to be done, but I feel like we are pretty good. … We’re definitely ready to showcase everything that we’ve been doing. I’m excited to be able to show the SEC in the whole nation what we have to offer.”
Southeast Missouri at No. 24 Missouri
▪ WHEN: 3 p.m. Saturday
▪ WHERE: Memorial Stadium, Columbia
▪ TV: SEC Network+
Three story lines
▪ 1. Baggett closes in on points record: Missouri senior kicker Andrew Baggett opens the season 70 points behind Jeff Wolfert on the career scoring list. Baggett’s 292 career points rank second at MU. He’s also 43 extra points and nine field goals from two other Wolfert records.
▪ 2. Wrapped-up-in-arms race: Missouri boasts the top two returning tacklers from the 2014 season in senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers (122) and junior linebacker Michael Scherer (114). Will one establish an early lead in the race to be the Tigers’ top tackler this season or will another contender emerge?
▪ 3. Remembering O’Neal: It’s been 10 years since Aaron O’Neal died during a voluntary workout at Missouri. The Tigers continue to honor his memory by annually awarding his jersey, No. 25, to a linebackers from O’Neal’s native St. Louis. For 2015, junior Donavin Newsom once again dons No. 25. O’Neal and Newsom both attended Parkway North High School.