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Missouri v Alabama SEC Championship

Missouri wide receiver J'Mon Moore (bottom) competes for a loose ball during the 2014 SEC championship game. Photo by Chris Lee, clee@post-dispatch.com

COLUMBIA, Mo. • The spring was Nate Brown’s chance to cool the concerns about Missouri’s wide receiver position and surface as the No. 1 target in the passing game. That opportunity lasted less than a week before Brown, a prized recruit from Mizzou’s 2014 class, strained his knee. He missed the rest of MU’s spring practices, including all three scrimmages.

The Tigers have to replace the players who accounted for 86 percent of last year’s receiving yardage, and Brown figured to be the leading candidate to headline the new wave of pass-catchers. His five receptions for 45 yards last year were the most of any returning player at the three receiver positions.

But the injury cost him valuable practice time to master the slot position in Mizzou’s spread passing game.

If anything (the injury) just motivated me to work harder,” Brown said after Thursday’s practice, the second of the preseason for the Tigers. “It felt like it was a shame seeing my team work and I wanted to be out there with them. I also wanted to be smart and conscious of the season. That’s the main goal.”

The season is nearly here, and with Brown back fully recovered from the knee sprain — he didn’t require surgery, only intense rehab — the team’s most untested position group is farther along through two days of practice than last year’s group of receivers, offensive coordinator Josh Henson said.

Questions about MU’s wideouts swirled around the team this time last year. Bud Sasser, a complementary part of the attack in years past, broke through with a career season, catching 77 passes for 1,003 yards, good enough to earn All-SEC honors. The Tigers don’t have a clear No. 1 target like Sasser became last year, but Henson walked off the practice field Thursday with a good feel for the group.

“It just feels like things are flowing a little smoother and operating better,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes from here.”

“You see athleticism,” he added. “You see guys running by people and coming in and out of cuts and making nice catches with their hands. I think the talent’s there.”

The wide receiver position has undergone some unforeseen roster turnover since the end of the 2013 season, including the dismissal of three players, most notably Dorial Green-Beckham, who was kicked off the team in April 2014 after his third run-in with police. The Tigers also dismissed wideouts Levi Copelin and Lawrence Lee for disciplinary reasons later last year. To shore up the supply, the Tigers added another four receivers in the 2015 recruiting class, on top of the five signed last year. That 2014 class lost a wideout in Lee but gained one when SLUH’s Ray Wingo converted from cornerback to slot receiver during the spring.

Of all the first- and second-year receivers, Brown’s the only one to appear in a college game, making his only start in the Citrus Bowl as an injury replacement to senior Jimmie Hunt. He had his longest reception of the season in the win over Minnesota, a 14-yard gain. A four-star recruit from Suwanee, Ga., Brown rebuffed late interest from Georgia when he signed with Mizzou last year.

How’s he looked through two days of camp?

“Rusty,” receivers coach Pat Washington said. “He’s anxious. But he’s going to work hard and before long he’ll be in good form.”

Washington likened the 6-3, 205-pound Brown to former MU receiver Marcus Lucas. Some offenses prefer smaller, quicker receivers at the inside positions, but not necessarily Mizzou. The 6-4 Lucas caught a career-high 58 passes when he moved to the slot in 2013.

“It gives you a chance to get some vertical stuff downfield when the quarterback can actually see the guy,” Washington said. “It’s an advantage against most teams.”

The Tigers feature good size on the outside, too, with a pair of 6-3 receivers dueling for the X position in redshirt freshman DeSean Blair and sophomore J’Mon Moore.

Moore was the team’s leading receiver in the spring scrimmages but was listed behind Blair when camp began. Moore, whose maturity the coaches have questioned in the past, explained that he was demoted after arguing with a coach earlier this summer.

“The latter part of the summer he began to understand what his role is and how he can help this team,” Washington said. “He began to understand that he has to be a great teammate. If he does that, the rest will take care of itself.”

Receiver will remain a position of concern until the season kicks off Sept. 5 against Southeast Missouri State — and probably beyond, until Mizzou faces better competition.

For now, the young corps, with nine of the 11 scholarship receivers in their first or second year of college, isn’t consumed by the talk outside the program. There’s too much to learn on the inside.

“People can say what they want,” Moore said. “But what we do is come out there and when it’s game time we perform and let our performance do the talking. Whoever has something to say about us not having any receivers or not having ability or experience, we’re just going to have to show them.”

Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.