COLUMBIA, Mo. — As much as coach Barry Odom’s staff targeted wide receivers in his first couple recruiting classes, the Tigers either struck out or struggled to reel in any keepers. Players such as Dimetrios Mason, Harry Ballard, O’Shae Clark and DaRon Davis inspired hope when they chose Mizzou but each one either washed out of the program or never arrived.
Last year the Tigers missed on the state’s best receiver prospect when CBC’s Kamryn Babb picked Ohio State. But, as the season unfolded, MU found strength in numbers.
The Tigers’ 2018 receiver class hardly was the nation's most celebrated — Clemson, Florida, Louisiana State, Southern California and Texas all signed multiple top-20 ranked wideouts — but the trio of Jalen Knox, Kam Scott and Dominic Gicinto stood out in its own ways. Pressed into expanded roles because of depth issues at some point or another, the rookies combined to catch 50 passes for 804 yards and seven touchdowns. Missouri was the only Power 5 team with three true freshman wide receivers who caught touchdown passes. Florida State had two freshmen wideouts and one redshirt freshman catch a TD.
After Monday’s preseason practice, Knox said he expects much more to come.
“Last year was like a building block, just setting the foundation,” he said. “This year is when we really start building the house and getting everything put into place.”
Of the three wideouts, Knox played the least as a receiver in high school but quickly earned the biggest role in a rotation that featured senior Emanuel Hall on the outside. Knox, from Mansfield, Texas, dabbled at multiple positions in high school, from quarterback to running back to slot receiver. Mizzou shifted him to outside receiver, behind Hall.
But injuries sidelined Hall for long stretches, vaulting Knox into a leading role sooner than most expected, starting at Purdue in the season’s third week, when the freshman caught five passes for 110 yards and his first of three touchdowns.
After another 100-yard game against Memphis, Knox’s production slipped. He missed the Tennessee game because of a head injury and caught only four passes over the final five games. By November, he wasn't the same player that dazzled the coaches in August.
“I hit that wall where my body gave out,” Knox said, “because I really wasn’t taking care of it.”
The deeper the Tigers got into Southeastern Conference play, Knox struggled to fight off press coverage on the outside, something he never experienced at the high-school level. He quickly learned that a receiver who can't get open can't catch the ball.
“That was a skill set I didn’t even have yet,” he said.
After half an offseason in the weight room, Knox practiced better than anyone on the team during spring drills, Odom said. He reported to camp chiseled at 6 feet and 195 pounds.
“First of all, he's extremely fast,” said cornerback Richaud Floyd, who moved from receiver to defense in the spring. “He’s picked up more muscle from last year. He's taking care of his body better so that his body doesn’t break down at the end of the season. He’s just getting more mature and learning the offense at a much higher clip.”
“He’s a confident guy now,” quarterback Kelly Bryant said.
Scott, a deep threat reserve last year, could earn a bigger role with the kind of catches he made through the first two weeks of camp. He hauled in the only touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage, turning a slant into a 34-yard score.
“He's getting the offense down quicker, more than he did last year,” Floyd said. “And he is just a natural playmaker.”
Gicinto, the least heralded recruit of the three, was a quick study last year in the slot and should push senior starter Johnathon Johnson for snaps this fall. Gicinto was on the receiving end of the longest play Saturday, a 46-yard catch on a pass from Bryant.
Odom noted Gicinto is playing with more “savviness” this year.
“He's a quiet guy, but also has some leadership capabilities about himself,” Odom said. “He is a playmaker. And the thing we've talked over and over and you guys will be tired of me saying it, but it’s about the consistency of doing it with these guys. He’s got to show up every day and do it.”
With graduate transfer Jonathan Nance in place to start on the outside and Johnson back in the slot — the fifth-year senior is 882 yards away from Danario Alexander’s team record for career receiving yardage — the Tigers are stocked with experienced pass-catchers. The difference between a functional passing game and one of the SEC’s best could hinge on the three sophomores. With the foundation set, it's time to see how high they can build the house.
Quick Hits from Matter on Mizzou
9 OR MORE WINS: HYPE OR POSSIBILITY?
QUESTION: There's a lot of hype from media personalities and fans of this being a 9-3 or 10-2 football season. What's your impression from the coaches and players compared to years past? Do they seem more confident this year?
MATTER: Missouri finished with eight wins last year against a more difficult conference schedule, so I wouldn't call a 9-3 prediction hype. I think it's grounded in logic with maybe a touch of optimism.
Here's a news bulletin: Players are confident every year. They expect to win every game. At this point in the calendar, they don't know much about Kentucky or Georgia or Tennessee. In the spring, the team leaders talked about going 12-0. And it's not all that different from what we hear from players before every season. So, I never read too much into the preseason bravado.
Coaches, on the other hand, can be the ultimate fatalists. They might have a sneaking suspicion this team is better than other teams ... but most of them are convinced one bad practice or one bad drill will lead to 0-12. And for the most part, coaches see only with tunnel vision. They're consumed with today's meetings and tomorrow's practice.
Do I get the sense they like this year's team? Of course, especially with how the team handled the sanctions news in January. But in the same breath that they express any hope they've got a million things to worry about, a million things that could go wrong.
IDEAL SCHEDULE FOR TIGERS?
QUESTION: Does Mizzou have the easiest schedule this year in SEC football? Last year was probably one of the toughest schedules we've ever had to play.
MATTER: Yes. When your two SEC West opponents are Arkansas and Ole Miss, that's the easiest possible combination you can have — at least on paper. Now, maybe Ole Miss' two coordinator hires and new quarterback turn the Rebels into a national juggernaut immediately. Then we can re-evaluate the strength of schedule.
But as far as the schedules stand right now based on what we know about the 14 teams, you can't get a more ideal schedule than Mizzou. Yes, they have to play at Georgia, but Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee, widely considered the next-best teams in the East, all visit Columbia.
I've always said that MU should capitalize on the odd-numbered years because it means three of your four SEC road games are at Kentucky, Vandy and Arkansas. And if you're going to join the SEC, your aspirations should always be that your program is better than those three programs.
WHO'S EXPECTED TO BEAT MIZZOU?
QUESTION: If Bryant fits in at QB and the team is scoring a lot, I see Georgia as the toughest opponent. South Carolina and Kentucky are pests that have given Mizzou problems, but even Georgia was beatable last year. Who do you see beating MU, assuming they aren't decimated by injuries and subpar performances?
MATTER: Last year’s Georgia game was probably the worst Georgia played in any of its 11 wins — and they still won by two TDs. MU's 29 points was the most UGA allowed in a win. And only Alabama and LSU scored more on the Bulldogs. But, again, there wasn't a point after midway through the third quarter that I thought Missouri had a chance to win that game.
When you look at the two teams this year, Georgia has much more in terms of established talent at most positions other than receiver and tight end. If you lined up the starters at every position between the two teams, how many Mizzou starters would you take over his Georgia counterpart? Okwuegbunam for sure. Maybe Rountree over Swift, but not many people will make that pick. UGA doesn't have much experience at receiver but still has young talent there. Their O-line and secondary is stacked. Fromm might be the third-best QB in the country. So, being objective here, and with the game being in Athens, I can't really make a valid argument for how Missouri wins that game. Unless, of course, like in any game, the Tigers play their best, Georgia plays much less than its best and some breaks fall Mizzou's way.
As for other teams that could/should beat Mizzou ... don't assume the Tigers will handle Florida just because the Tigers won that game the last two years. UF returns a lot of talent from a 10-win team and didn't lose much to the draft. I picked MU second in the East but wouldn't be surprised to see UF push Georgia all year long and make a playoff surge. South Carolina won't be an easy game. They match up well against Odom's teams, for whatever reason, and have a veteran QB who's been in plenty of big games on the road. K
Kentucky also has MU's number, but I'm not convinced they're built for the long haul. They lost two special players.
WHEN WILL THE NCAA MAKE UP ITS MIND?
QUESTION: When will the kangaroo court make its decision on the NCAA appeals case? It’s totally ridiculous that these penalties were handed down in the first place.
MATTER: Let me direct you back to what I wrote in Sunday's Post-Dispatch. I wrote it about as clearly as we can at this point: "When can Mizzou expect a final ruling on the appeal? The NCAA benchmark is six to eight weeks after the final hearing, which took place July 18. On average, an NCAA appeals case takes eight months from the time of the appeal to the final ruling. MU filed its appeal on March 25. In other words, the ruling could come any time from August to November."
Follow-up: (ESPN Insider) Phil Steele says he expects the bowl ban sanctions against Mizzou to be overturned. I hope he's right.
MATTER: Nobody knows. From Jim Sterk to Alex Cartwright to Barry Odom. The appeals committee can deliberate for months before making its decision. So, as much as Phil knows about every team's depth chart from Akron to Youngstown State, he doesn't know if the ban will be overturned.
CAN CUONZO KEEP EVERYONE HAPPY?
QUESTION: There's a lot of potential with the Mizzou basketball team, especially this set of guards. Can Coach Martin keep them all happy?
MATTER: Keeping everyone happy is a challenge and goal of every coach. I'd say that's something to monitor with this team — not because Cuonzo has a group of me-first players who won't buy into the team concept, but there's just a lot of guards/ball-handlers/shooters who can be impact players for this team but not necessarily every night. Martin addressed that challenge this week.
"I think our strength will be our numbers as far as nine, 10 guys, sharing the basketball and playing well as a team. But the other part is ... the sacrifice of if 'I don't play as much tonight I have to understand the big picture,' what it means to be a team because oftentimes when you huddle up as a team you say you want to be family ... you say all these things. What does that really mean? Family means sacrifice. ... I think it will be good in a lot of areas. But I think the most important thing, we have to be good as a whole."
This team doesn't have individual superstars. At least not yet as the way it's constructed now. That's why they have to buy into what Martin is preaching to have a cohesive, balanced, deep team.
LEADERS IN FOOTBALL AND BASKETBALL
QUESTION: Who stands out as the best leaders on both the football and basketball rosters? What can you say about them that demonstrates those capabilities?
MATTER: On the football team, Cale Garrett, Kelly Bryant, Larry Rountree, DeMarkus Acy, Johnathon Johnson.
Granted, I'm not in the locker room or around the team in their most intimate settings, but these are all guys who carry themselves with the right blend of confidence but also an approachability. They're the kind of players you want to be around and have with you when things are good and bad on the field and away from the field. Bryant won over his new teammates when he pledged to stay at Mizzou in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. Rountree just carries himself like a pro, appears to be a model teammate and plays as hard as anyone. Garrett says and does all the right things and leads by example. Acy seems to be finding his voice and holds himself to a really high standard. Same for Johnson.
As for hoops, the players have raved about Dru Smith. Cuonzo has, too. Yesterday he compared him to Kassius Robertson. That's incredibly high praise. “He’ll say what needs to be said but very similar to Kassius in a way, he’ll just go about his business, say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done and let (his) work speak for itself," Martin said.
TOUGHEST FOOTBALL COACHING JOB?
QUESTION: Who has the toughest football coaching job in the SEC?
MATTER: I would say Vanderbilt ... but the expectations there are so much lower than any other school that I don't think the coaches there are under the same kind of scrutiny or pressure to win at the national level. Yes, they’ll fire a coach if he loses year after year, but the leash is longer because the resources and standards aren’t nearly as high as they are everywhere else.
On that note, I think you can make a case that Mississippi State is the more difficult job, mostly because of its location in Starkville and the fact that its resources are less than that of the other public universities in the league. But MSU still has a rabid fan base that expects results even though, historically, they’ve never been a great program.
I also think Missouri is a difficult job because of the limited local recruiting pool, the incredibly small donor base, the attendance challenge and the lack of established tradition and history compared to some SEC peers.
UPDATE ON ALCOHOL SALES AT MIZZOU EVENTS?
QUESTION: Any update on selling beer/wine to the general public in Missouri athletic venues at athletic events? I thought July 31 was somewhat of a deadline for a decision.
MATTER: At last check, AD Jim Sterk is still working through the process of making this happen this year. I would expect some kind of announcement soon. Missouri wants to make it happen, but the athletics department needs everyone in alignment, from police to campus leadership to their food and beverage distributor.
Follow-up: Do fans really want to overpay for cheap booze at Faurot? Why is it so hard to enjoy football without alcohol? What's wrong with getting sloshed in the parking lot beforehand?
MATTER: This doesn't concern me, and I can't speak for the fans. But when I attend a sporting event that I'm not covering, I like to enjoy an adult beverage or two. Not everyone drinks to get annihilated and black out. I'm sure a lot of fans would like the opportunity to have a beer without having to binge drink in the parking lot before the game or sneak in their favorite spirit in their cargo shorts.
EARLIER STORY: Mizzou hopes to follow West Virginia's lead on alcohol sales
WHO STEPS UP IN THE BACKUP QB ROLE?
QUESTION: As preseason camp starts, how do you rank the backup quarterbacks?
MATTER: Taylor Powell opens camp as No. 2. He won the backup job in camp last year. Lindsey Scott Jr. is still in the mix. Freshman Connor Bazelak has joined the team this summer, though I doubt we see him this fall unless they want to get him on the field under the new redshirt rule (four games or fewer).
The wild card is TCU transfer Shawn Robinson. He has a waiver request pending. The team won't want to use up his year of eligibility unless Kelly Bryant gets hurt for a lengthy stretch, but if the NCAA grants the waiver, MU might want to get Robinson some playing time to prepare for 2020.