COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s stakes in Friday’s Battle Line Rivalry game against Arkansas all but vanished Tuesday when the NCAA rejected MU’s appeal and upheld the team’s postseason ban. Tigers coach Barry Odom surely spent the last three days building up the rivalry angle, even though these teams have met only five times as conference peers.
He also undoubtedly touched on the team’s seniors, who stuck around in the face of NCAA sanctions and can finish their college careers with a victory.
But this one means a lot more to Barrett Banister.
The junior slot receiver has plenty on the line when the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 Southeastern Conference) kick off at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark., in his home state against his home-state team.
“It’s really important,” the former walk-on said this week. “It’s a team I grew up watching my entire life and I got a lot of friends that play for that team and just a lot of connections to that whole entire program and that state.”
Banister’s roots run deep in Arkansas red: He grew up in Fayetteville, where his grandfather Harold Horton and uncle Tim Horton played for the Razorbacks and later coached there as assistants. Banister also has two siblings who attended Arkansas. Naturally, he grew up dreaming of catching passes for the Hogs, but the scholarship offer never came.
Arkansas’ loss has become Missouri’s gain. When the Tigers signed Fayetteville High School quarterback Taylor Powell in Odom’s first recruiting class, the QB vouched for his favorite receiver, and rather than join Auburn’s program as a walk-on — uncle Tim is its running backs coach — Banister headed to Missouri as a preferred walk-on. He earned a backup role last season and caught eight passes.
This year, as the Mizzou passing game has struggled for a long list of reasons, you can make a case Banister has become the team’s most reliable receiver. He heads into Friday’s finale with 21 catches for a 186 yards and a touchdown. Seven of his receptions have gone for first downs. He’s caught 77.8 percent of the passes thrown his direction, the highest rate of MU’s regulars at receiver. He’s dropped just one pass on 27 targets, compared to eight drops by preseason All-American tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and five by wideouts Jonathan Nance and Kam Scott.
“He’s not going to be the fastest guy in the room but he understands that and he’s learned to run efficient routes,” Odom said. “And he’s sure handed, dependable. You can count on him. He’s really good in the run game when we’re asking them to block the near defender. It’s always something that the quarterback knows exactly where he’s going to be. So that’s a comfort zone for those guys, when Barrett’s in the game.”
Banister’s success rate of 55.6, as measured by SECStatCat.com, is the highest of any Mizzou receiver, tight end or running back with more than one catch.
That figure puts him in the neighborhood of the SEC’s most prolific wideouts, including LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase (60.9), Tennessee’s Juan Jennings (56.5) and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy (54.7).
In a season in which most players on Mizzou’s offense rarely have fulfilled preseason expectations, Banister’s value has transcended his production on the field.
“I’ve always felt like your goal as a player is to go and develop into being the best version of yourself, being the best you can be,” MU offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “And I don’t think there’s anybody on our team who does as good a job every day of working to be his absolute best more than Barrett. He really is an inspiration. He should be an inspiration for everyone.
“On offense, our big thing is you got to know what to do, you got to know how to do it and you know why it’s important to do it that way. And then you got to do it with tremendous effort and toughness. He just follows that model in everything we do. . . . Even though you could sit there and say, ‘Well, he doesn’t have near the physical traits as some of the other guys we have.’ But he’s a 10 times better football player, because it’s important to him. He loves the game. He’s not out there trying to be cool. He’s not complaining about you anything we have to do. He’s just . . . let’s go.”
As much as Banister’s emergence has been a positive narrative for the Tigers, it also reflects one of the team’s most troubling trends. Under Odom’s watch, the receiver position has become an overall weakness. Mizzou has missed on several notable receiver targets over the last few years, while others who joined the program haven’t developed into consistent performers. Here’s proof: Heading into Friday’s finale, the team’s leading receiver is backup running back Tyler Badie — with 32 catches. That’s great for Badie, but is it a bad sign for the offense?
“You bet,” Odom said this week. “Anytime your runner’s the top receiver . . . that would be the reason or some of the reasons that we’ve not had as near as much success as we needed to on that side of the ball. Tyler’s done some great things, but I don’t think he should be our leading receiver.”
Depending on what happens Friday, Badie could become the first running back to finish with the team’s most receptions since Brock Olivo had a team-high 17 in 1995 for a run-oriented offense.
“It’s not it’s not certainly something you map out early in the year,” Dooley said.
Banister’s rise, though, was easier to project. He’s been a backup to Johnathon Johnson most of the season, until the senior’s missed the last three games because of a shoulder injury. All along he’s found a kinship with Dooley, whom Banister noted this week began his college career as a walk-on receiver at Virginia.
“For him to put faith and trust in me and for me to have to work and earn that, it’s been a real reward to do that,” Banister said.
In a season that’s turned up minimal rewards for the Tigers, there’s one more at stake for Banister. Players are trained to treat every game the same as the last and no different than the next, but the kid from Arkansas admitted he’s had Friday’s finale circled on his calendar all year.
“It’s a personal game for me,” he said.