Why this year's receivers aren't matching Missouri's recent history
Gary Pinkel has had some pretty good success with his pass-catchers since he arrived in Columbia.
The Missouri coach has helped five receivers and tight ends blossom into All-Americans, including two-time All-American and current Kansas City Chiefs star receiver Jeremy Maclin. Others, including Bud Sasser, Dorial Green-Beckham, T.J. Moe, Jared Perry, Tommy Saunders, Will Franklin, Sean Coffey, J.D. McCoy and Justin Gage, earned all-conference honors under Pinkel. His 2013 receiving corps, which included Sasser and Green-Beckham as well as NFL roster invites L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, was among the best in college football that year.
Even receivers who didn’t earn these recognitions were more than qualified to play in Pinkel’s offense. Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, while limited by injuries last year, could be counted on to have a big game here and there while forming a solid corps with Sasser. Gahn McGaffie and tight end Eric Waters stacked up well against the rest of the SEC when Missouri joined the conference in 2012.
So why has this year been so different? Missouri ranks 13th in the SEC in passing yards per game and doesn’t have a receiver in the top 25 in the conference in receiving yards. No part of the offense, from the blocking to the rushing game, has looked particularly well, but Tigers fans have grown accustomed to having good receivers.
For one, Missouri’s receivers are young. While Sasser, Hunt and White formed the corps last year as seniors, and Lucas and Washington (along with then-sophomore Green-Beckham) the year before that also as seniors, the Tigers are now starting just one senior receiver in Wesley Leftwich. Sophomores Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore are the team’s other two starters, but all three cede plenty of playing time to other underclassmen.
In addition to being young, Missouri’s receivers are inexperienced. Returning Tigers receivers combined for just 10 catches entering 2015. Brown and Leftwich earned some playing time last year while Hunt and White were injured. But Sasser was such a go-to receiver that he never left the field. That didn’t allow Missouri’s backups to get much playing time last season, and it’s showing now.
Speaking of go-to receivers, the Tigers just don’t have one. Brown and Moore have fairly similar stats but are ranked in the 20s in most conference receiving categories. Someone who can go up and get the deep ball or be a constant presence in the slot would work wonders for young starting QB Drew Lock and the gun-slinging Maty Mauk who, per reports, was reinstated to the team today. Brown and Moore brought the talent into the program to become go-to receivers, but their performance this year isn’t giving fans confidence that that can happen.
To put things simply, Mizzou’s receivers aren’t doing the little things well. They aren’t running solid routes, they aren’t gaining separation on those routes and they almost never come down with the ball on those 50-50 throws. Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson even admitted yesterday the receivers have trouble getting open in man-to-man coverage.
Henson says man-to-man coverage has been an issue for MU's receivers.
— David Morrison (@DavidCMorrison) October 27, 2015
Are youth and inexperience the reasons for this failing? What about the subpar quarterback play, non-existent rushing attack or tepid blocking? Was Andy Hill’s move from receivers coach to quarterbacks coach in 2013 a bad one for the program?
All those reasons are valid, but perhaps the biggest reasons this year’s receivers aren’t matching Missouri’s history under Pinkel is roster attrition. Talented receivers Green-Beckham, Lawrence Lee and Levi Copelin were all dismissed from the program prematurely. Sure, Green-Beckham would likely have departed for the NFL last May, but imagining all three contributing to the 2015 team is a tantalizing exercise for Missouri fans. Their departures, as well as Missouri getting its feet wet recruiting the Southeast after moving from the Big 12, have created a domino effect where receivers are having to contribute at earlier parts of their careers.
Pinkel has thrived by slowly bringing receivers up through his system and developing them into solid college players by the time they graduate. Occasionally, he’ll get a blue chip prospect like a Maclin or Green-Beckham who can start right away. But more often than not, Missouri players and, especially receivers, need time to develop.
This group hasn’t been able to develop the way most Pinkel receivers do, and it’s showing this year.