Last season, Danario Alexander had 38% of Missouri's receptions, 44% of its yards and caught half of its 26 touchdown passes. Throughout the spring and fall, the Tigers talked of having a more diverse passing attack, of replacing Alexander not with a single player, but by committee.
Through four games, that has been true...sort of. No individual has caught more than a third of the passes or has more than 35.5% of the total yardage. But only two Tigers have been primary targets for Blaine Gabbert. Wide receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew have caught 70 of the team's 111 completions and have accounted for 62.3% of the team's receiving yardage.
"Guys kind of earn the position in practice to throw the ball to them more. So we kind of put it on our players to compete to get it more," Gary Pinkel said. "We also have always leaned on a couple players more so than others, I think, if you look historically."
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Obviously, someone is going to have to lead the team in receptions. But never since going to the spread offense have the Tigers' top two receivers been so far and away more productive than the rest in the non-conference season. In 2009, Alexander and Jared Perry caught 53.2% of the completed passes for 75.5% of the yards over the first four games. In no season with Chase Daniel at quarterback did the Tigers have two players account for as much as half of the receptions or yardage in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Moe leads the country in receptions per game with 9.25. Egnew is fifth (and first among tight ends) with 8.25. On the surface, those numbers are great, but the major question is, does the lack of distribution pose a problem for the Tiger offense? Not for at least one person.
"It's not an issue for me," Moe said with a smile.
In all seriousness, though, the issue is not who is catching the passes as long as someone is catching them.
"As long as we're getting completions, then we're doing well I think," Moe said. "If we're getting open, the guys in the slots a lot of times are the first reads. It's not Blaine's job to go past the first read if we're open. We have some plays in for some of the other guys and that will develop a little more as the season goes on, but right now, we're just going to keep trying to catch the football."
The other receivers agree.
"If we're winning and it's working, it's good," junior Jerrell Jackson said. "It's really the plays that's called and those plays are working. So we're going to keep going at 'em."
As much as Moe and Egnew's play, it has perhaps been Jackson's health that has caused the passing game to be so reliant on just two players. In 2009, Jackson was Missouri's third-leading target with 37 catches for 458 yards. Many of those numbers were piled up after Perry suffered a season-ending knee injury against Kansas State. While Jackson was expected to be Blaine Gabbert's go-to receiver this season, a broken wrist forced him to play the first three games at less than full strength while wearing a cast. He sat out the Miami of Ohio game with a thigh bruise. He is the third-leading receiver so far with 11 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.
"He's been limited obviously. When you have a cast on your hand and you're a receiver, it's not going to be the most ideal situation," receivers coach Andy Hill said. "But I think he's done a nice job battling through that and I think if we keep moving him around a little bit, he'll get more and more as we go on."
"I probably could have did a lot better and coach probably would have threw the ball (to me) a lot more, but they knew I had the cast on so they held it back a little bit," Jackson said. "Now that I'm getting back healthy, I think it will be getting thrown around a lot because they know that us three and Wes Kemp are all possible to make good plays for them."
Kemp has caught just nine passes for 104 yards in the first four games. But three of those grabs-for 43 yards and his only touchdown so far-came in the Tigers' last game against the Redhawks.
"Big catch last week, couple good catches, did well, big touchdown catch. Hopefully he'll do more," Pinkel said. "I thought we got him really involved our last game and he's doing very, very well in practice, got a great attitude. He's a good leader, great kid and I think he'll do a lot of good things."
In each of the last four seasons, Missouri has had at least five players catch 20 passes or more. The distribution was never greater than the 12-win 2007 season when a half-dozen Tigers had at least 37 receptions. It would be surprising to see the distribution carry that far, but Missouri would like to spread the ball out a little bit more in the coming weeks.
"I think as long as it works, I think that's okay," Pinkel said of the current disparity. "I think when you can diversify a little bit, you can throw it around to different people, I think overall it helps you. I don't really see that to be a problem, I'd just like to incorporate some of our athletes if we can."
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