COLUMBIA, Mo. • Marcus Lucas was Missouri’s leading receiver last season, but it was a year he’d like to forget. Midway through the season, after one particularly miserable performance, Lucas all but disappeared from the Tigers’ offense. Injuries contributed to what became a wretched passing attack, but Lucas found himself in a funk by October.
After two untimely drops and a fumble against Vanderbilt, Lucas caught just four passes over the next three games. Against Kentucky, the Tigers’ first of two conference wins, Lucas didn’t catch a single pass.
“I had one bad game,” he said Monday, “and it trickled down.”
Heading into his senior season, with chances to salvage his career getting slim, Lucas turned inward — in more ways than one.
As it became obvious that sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham needed a more prominent role as an outside receiver, Lucas embraced a subtle but pivotal position change. A natural outside receiver with the size, soft hands and leaping ability to beat single coverage down the sideline, Lucas shifted inside to the slot, the Y receiver in Mizzou’s playbook. It’s essentially the same position former All-Americans Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman and Danario Alexander played.
So far, Lucas has been a natural fit.
“You find yourself running routes against guys who don’t play man coverage really well,” receivers coach Pat Washington said. “You’re running your routes against linebackers and safeties. That’s an advantage. And he’s a good route runner.”
Plus, the 6-foot-5, 220-pound senior gives the offense another interior blocker for running plays and screen passes.
While James Franklin’s healthy return has commanded headlines through three games, along with MU’s renewed running game, the budding brilliance of Green-Beckham and a sturdier offensive line, Lucas has quietly become a stabilizer for a much improved passing game.
As the Tigers (3-0) head into their final nonconference game, Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. visit from Arkansas State (2-2), Lucas shares the team lead for receptions with Green-Beckham — they’ve both caught 17 passes and rank third among SEC receivers with 5.7 catches per game — but he’s been targeted a team-high 28 times. Franklin threw his direction 13 times in Saturday’s win at Indiana, and Lucas came through with a career-best output: 10 catches for 101 yards.
“I think he’s starting to realize and reach some of his ability,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s a very, very talented player.”
Lucas’s route is often the first progression on passing plays, Franklin said, but there’s also a trust factor at play.
“He’s an early read,” Franklin said, “but also I’ll peek at (the coverage), and I feel more comfortable with that position and with him catching the ball.”
Lucas ranks just third on the team with 162 receiving yards — Green-Beckham leads the way with 239, followed by outside receiver L’Damian Washington’s 187 — but when Franklin needs to move the chains, he usually looks for his most seasoned wideout. Lucas leads the team with five catches on third down for 43 yards and four conversions.
“It’s funny because we kind of went through a similar slump our junior year, and now we’re bouncing back,” Franklin said of Lucas. “It’s not something I really think about. I realized after the game I threw to him a bunch … but it’s just I feel comfortable throwing to him.”
That explains why Franklin kept feeding Lucas after the senior receiver gave the ball away on MU’s fifth possession Saturday. On a 12-yard reception down the seam, Indiana linebacker Marcus Oliver ripped the ball out of Lucas’ hands, the Tigers’ third turnover of the half.
A year or two ago, Lucas might not have recovered after such a costly mistake, he said. Not this time.
“I apologized to my teammates right there on the bench,” Lucas said. “I told them it wasn’t going to happen again. James, I was fortunate enough that he came back to me. He was confident in me that I could make a play. Whenever things like that happen, you want to get down on yourself but you know you can’t.”
Two series later, Lucas caught two more passes from Franklin, extending a drive into the red zone. Three plays later, Franklin ran in what became the go-ahead touchdown.
“You have to forget what happened and move on to the next play,” Pat Washington said. “Some guys are not mature enough to do that. Some guys would think about that fumble for the next five plays and probably have five minuses in a row because they’re thinking about that fumble. But he’s able to move on.”As the Tigers rekindle their passing attack, Lucas continues to put last year’s struggles and subsequent vanishing act behind him. He’s moved on.
“After seeing that last year and how it affected me, I told myself I’d never let it happen again,” he said. “You’ve got to keep your confidence no matter what.’’