Spring Football began as expected for Missouri at the inexperienced wide receiver position, with senior Wesley Leftwich, and sophomores J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown opening the spring working with the first-team offense in what had been described by Coach Washington as a “wide open” competition.
But before the Tigers even got into pads, Brown went down with a knee injury, and although he was close to getting back on the field by the end of Spring Football, he missed virtually all of the spring. What we did see of Brown very early on didn’t disappoint, and the expectation that Brown will emerge as one of Missouri’s top receiving threats this season remains intact.
“We’re going to get Nate Brown back,” said Coach Pinkel. “And we expect him to be a starter.”
But without Brown in the slot this spring, it opened up opportunities for other players, and it allowed the Tigers to look at playing two tight ends by replacing the slot receiver with a second tight end.
Brown’s absence allowed the sure-handed junior walk-on, Eric Laurent, the opportunity to take first-team reps in the slot for almost the entirety of the spring. He began Spring Football with the second team on the outside, but was quickly moved to the inside. Laurent is a big target and a reliable possession-type receiver. He performed well this spring. He presents a big, reliable target, and he makes tough catches in traffic. He also showed that he can handle the blocking assignments that are critical to being a regular in the slot. By the end of the spring, Laurent had solidified himself at the top of the Depth Chart, and he will head into fall camp solidly in the mix for a spot in the wide-receiver rotation for this season. Whether he’ll remain at the slot receiver position or move back to the outside will likely depend as much on the performance of others as it will on his own play.
That last statement may also be true of Brown, who had previously shown himself capable of playing on the inside as well as on the outside.
Two other slot receivers, a pair of red-shirt freshmen, were heard from this spring. Thomas Richard opened the spring as the number two slot receiver, and he spent the entire spring at that spot. Richard has good size for that position, but he’s not as big as Brown or Laurent. He had a good spring, not spectacular or overly impressive in terms of production, but he got better. He just needs to continue to develop strength and fundamental technique, and he needs to continue to become more consistent with his route running and especially with catching the football.
That last statement is true of nearly all of the Missouri receivers. Virtually all of them need to become more consistent with their route running and especially with catching the football.
“We’ve got young receivers,” said Coach Pinkel. “They haven’t played with the quarterbacks very much. So there’s a lot of inconsistency…………………………………….. We have a lot of inexperienced receivers. They’re very talented. But they’re very inexperienced.”
Ray Wingo played the first two-thirds of the spring at cornerback before switching to slot receiver for the final week or so of practices. Despite not really knowing the plays, and at times having to be shown where to line up, Wingo emerged from the spring as one of the Tigers’ more productive receivers. He’s a fast-twitch athlete, and he brings a level of excitement and big-play ability to the slot receiver position the Tigers didn’t otherwise have this spring. He didn’t appear to have any problem with catching the football, and he’s electric with the football after the catch, especially in space.
“(Ray Wingo) has great speed and quickness,” said Coach Pinkel. “We saw enough (from him at receiver this spring) to say that’s where we’re going to start him off in August to see if he can get in the depth. He can very possibly help us at receiver (this season).”
The most productive wide receiver this spring was Moore, who really began to get on the same page with Maty Mauk toward the end of the spring. Moore is maturing, and this spring, he appeared to take significant strides in his development, almost from week to week.
Moore’s back-up, red-shirt freshman Desean Blair, was also very productive, and he seemed to follow that same track, with almost week to week significant improvement. He ended up being named as Missouri’s Most-Improved Wide Receiver this spring, no small bit of recognition considering how much several of the young Missouri receivers improved this spring.
Moore and Blair lined up exclusively on the left side of the formation, at the X WR position, this spring. With the improvements that each of them made this spring, they combine to give Missouri a pretty solid pair of developing receivers at that position with which to head into the summer and fall.
On the other side of the formation, at the Z WR position, Leftwich remained at the top of the Depth Chart throughout the spring. The importance of his senior leadership cannot be overstated, particularly with respect to the development of this young group of receivers.
Red-shirt freshman Keyon Dilosa moved up onto the second unit following the first of the spring scrimmages. He’s very talented, but this spring, he didn’t appear to be fully one-hundred percent recovered from his Achilles’ injury that caused him to miss all of the valuable practice time last fall. At the very least, he was behind in his expected development. But with his talent, and having risen to the second-team offense, he enters the summer and fall solidly in the mix to win a spot in the rotation for this season. Like virtually every other receiver on the Missouri roster, he just needs to become more consistent in every aspect of playing his position, again, especially with respect to route running and catching the football.
As mentioned above, the Tigers are looking at the possibility of utilizing a pair of tight ends on the field together in the passing game.
Once again, the injury bug bit junior Sean Culkin fairly early in the spring, and he missed most of the spring. He’s still the starter, but his absence from the line-up allowed sophomore Jason Reese the opportunity to work extensively with the first-team offense. And Reese took advantage of the opportunity to display his speed, athleticism, and pass-catching ability. By the end of the spring, I thought Reese, who was named the Most-Improved Tight End, looked like the starter.
So, the Tigers came out of Spring Football with what appears to be a pair of starter-quality tight ends.
Coach Pinkel mentioned former Missouri All-Americans “Rucker and Coffman” in pointing out that Missouri has previously played with two tight ends and two wide receivers on the field.
“Jason Reese is a really good young tight end,” said Coach Pinkel. “He’s a very, very talented guy. Sean Culkin had a great spring until he got hurt. So, there’s many combinations that we can go with in our offense.”
Two other tight ends also took advantage of the increased opportunity created by Culkin’s absence in the line-up, as senior Clayton Echard and red-shirt freshman Kendall Blanton each saw a lot more action. Both Echard and Blanton showed well this spring, further demonstrating that heading into the summer and fall camp, the Tigers do have some significant depth at the tight end position.
Over the last couple of seasons, Echard has primarily been a blocking tight end utilized in short-yardage situations. But this spring, he showed himself capable as a receiver. And Blanton is an exciting, young, developing tight end with a huge upside. He’s a very big target who knows how to use his body to shield the defender away from the football. And he’s shown very good hands, as well as the ability to catch the ball in traffic. Post-Spring Receiver Depth
TE 10 Jason Reese 6’5” 240 (So) 82 Clayton Echard 6’5” 260 (S) 11 Kendall Blanton 6’6” 255 (RSF) 80 Sean Culkin 6’6” 245 (J) (injured) 87 Austin Ray 6’3” 240 (So) (injured)
X WR 6 J'Mon Moore 6’3” 190 (So) 17 DeSean Blair 6’3” 185 (RSF) 28 Marcell Kellum 6’3” 190 (So) 39 Brendan Martini 6’2” 190 (So)
H WR 41 Eric Laurent 6’3” 215 (J) 16 Thomas Richard 6’0” 190 (RSF) 14 Ray Wingo 6’0” 180 (RSF) 41 Aaron Bailey 5’9” 165 (J ) 19 Oke Akushe 5’10” 185 (So) 81 Jeffrey Kadriu 5’11” 190 (So) 2 Nate Brown 6’3” 205 (So) (injured)
Z WR 18 Wesley Leftwich 6’1” 200 (S) 15 Keyon Dilosa 6’3” 194 (RSF) 26 Jake Brents 6’3” 205 (J) 89 Shawn McCalmon 6’2” 165 (J)