ST. LOUIS — Of all the questions surrounding the University of Missouri football team going into the 2014 season, perhaps the biggest is who will step up at wide receiver for the Tigers.
L’Damian Washington? Gone.
Dorial Green-Beckham? Gone.
Marcus Lucas? Gone.
Mizzou’s top three receivers from last year’s 12-2, SEC East championship squad have all moved on, leaving a gaggle of relatively unproven wideouts in their place.
"When you come in the program, you have the opportunity to lead," said wide receiver Jimmie Hunt, who will be a fifth-year senior this fall. "So just growing as a person, as a receiver, you have those skills to lead. You have to take them on headfirst now. You have to get some of the underclassmen ready, as well as lead by example, by showing them. Really let them know what to expect from them and what the foundation and tradition is at Mizzou."
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That might be easier said than done, as Washington, Green-Beckham and Lucas cast a large shadow in Columbia — and not only because they were all tall enough to play small forward on the Tigers’ basketball team. All three had staying power as dependable playmakers for Mizzou, though DGB’s career was cut short by his off-the-field transgressions.
Lucas finished his Mizzou career with 130 catches for 1,638 yards and 11 touchdowns in 49 games. Washington had 100 catches, 1,735 yards and 15 touchdowns in 51 games. Green-Beckham had 87 catches, 1,278 yards and 17 touchdowns in his two seasons.
After that trio, Mizzou’s next two leading receivers last season were Bud Sasser and Hunt. Sasser, who will also be a senior this fall, had 26 catches for 361 yards and one touchdown. Hunt had 22 catches for 253 yards and one score.
Both will be in the spotlight this fall.
It’s their time to show what they are capable of in featured roles.
Hunt said there isn’t pressure on the returners to step up and fill those shoes.
"The best insight comes from the underclassmen, if they can come in and help," Hunt said. "If they can contribute, really, then that right there will push us over the top. It’s always good to have good leaders, so they can have somebody to look at, but if you’ve got some guys who can step on the field when you’re tired and do the same thing and not lose a beat, then that’s going to be even better."
Hunt recognizes that his final campaign in Columbia represents an opportunity for a potential breakthrough season.
"I’m healthy," he said. "I just plan on being explosive like I was in 2012 (when he scored four touchdowns, including a kick-return score). Just getting back to the basics: running good routes, footwork and just catching the ball and going to score. Big blocks. Just being a motivational person for my team."
Hunt, who hails from Cahokia, Ill., named a few of his teammates as players to watch.
"J’Mon Moore," Hunt said. "He’s been showing some really big plays. Sean Culkin with the tight ends. There are some other guys. Darius White, he’s stepping up pretty big out there. He’s a senior this year, but this will be his real first chance of playing, as far as getting a lot of reps. Me and Bud Sasser as well."
Moore will be a redshirt freshman this fall. White, a transfer from Texas, had seven catches for 76 yards and a touchdown last season. Culkin had one catch for six yards.
Some reinforcements could come in the form of players the Tigers signed in February who will be true freshmen this fall.
Nate Brown is a four-star prospect from Georgia who racked up 61 receptions for 1,081 yards and 21 touchdowns in 16 games as a high school senior. Thomas Richard, a three-star prospect from Nashville, had 67 catches for 1,103 yards and 14 TDs as a senior in 2013.
There will be opportunities for players to step up this fall.