Unheralded Tiger wide receiver corps makes name for itself

Seven different wide receivers have caught at least one touchdown pass.
Freshman wide receiver Johnathon Johnson pushes to escape a tackle by Georgia junior cornerback Aaron Davis.

The last time Missouri had more than five wide receivers with at least one touchdown catch was the 2013 season. That year, Missouri went to its first Southeastern Conference Championship and won the Cotton Bowl.

The 2013 squad featured star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, who topped the list of nine scoring receivers with 12 touchdowns. That season, Missouri’s passing attack racked up 31 touchdowns.

Missouri’s current batch of receivers doesn’t boast any big-name wideouts.

You wouldn’t know that by the way the Tiger pass catchers have played this season.

Missouri’s aerial attack is quickly becoming one of the most feared in the country, armed with quarterback Drew Lock and a ragtag team of receivers who are quickly making names for themselves. Through three games, seven different receivers have caught at least one of Lock’s nine touchdown passes.

“The coolest thing to me today was throwing to those guys who have never caught the ball in the end zone,” Lock said following his five-touchdown performance against Eastern Michigan. “Seeing their faces after they catch the touchdowns is probably the coolest thing.”

Coming into the season, the Tiger receivers were largely unproven. Only two, J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown, had significant past experience.

“My last game of high school was really the last time I played like that,” receiver Ray Wingo said in reference to his performance against Eastern Michigan.

Early on in the season, Missouri boasts one of the nation’s best passing attacks. Lock has more passing yards than all but three other quarterbacks in the country.

Part of the receivers' success can be attributed to offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s dedication to utilizing the strengths of each of his receivers. Wide receivers coach Andy Hill is quick to credit his players for picking up the new system in stride.

“It says a lot about those guys,” Hill said before the Georgia game. “We’ve had 10 guys that stay in the meeting and pay attention and all have a chance to play. Those guys are reaping the benefits.”

Last season, Missouri’s passing attack was one of the most lackluster in the country. Missouri’s playcalling rarely used the middle of the field, often opting for bubble screens and outside routes instead.

While Heupel still orders those routes on occasion, he has focused more on utilizing his wide receivers’ strengths when designing route patterns. That is why Moore has appeared more on slant routes this season while Missouri’s speedy slot receivers are often seen sprinting down the field on deep routes.

“At the end of the day, you can’t block everyone,” Heupel said. “The guy with the ball in his hands is responsible. He’s on scholarship to make the last guy miss. We’re trying to put our guys in some space where they have the ability to do that.”

The difference in playcalling is doing wonders for Missouri’s ability to move the ball. The Tigers are averaging over 15 yards per catch, whereas the 2015 receivers only managed just under 11 yards per catch.

For quarterback Drew Lock, the emergence of his receiving core has not only been nice to throw to but fun to watch.

“All these guys want it super bad,” Lock said after the Eastern Michigan game. “It was just cool to let them get in the flow of things. [Wingo] is always like, ‘I’m going to run past them, I’m going to run past them.’ So I’m like: ‘Here you go. Here it is. Run past them, and I’m going to get you the ball and we’ll go score.’”

Although the Tigers showed many different plays in their arsenal the first three games, they have yet to use many of their potent weapons. Brown, who led the team in touchdown receptions in 2015, has yet to play due to an ankle injury.

Meanwhile, tight end Sean Culkin has yet to find the end zone, and Missouri’s running backs have yet to catch a touchdown in 2016. Wingo knows that by the end of the season, all of Missouri’s pieces will be used.

“We’ve been working together,” Wingo said. “We’ve been coming together as a team and gelling. I mean, this is what we all want to do: make big plays and go score.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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