COLUMBIA, Mo. – Nate Brown lined up in the slot on a cold night in November 2015 at Memorial Stadium. Gary Pinkel was on the sideline for the last time as Missouri’s coach. Freshman phenom Drew Lock had long hair that extended out of his helmet. Josh Henson was calling plays for the Tigers.
There was 27 seconds on the clock when Brown stepped up to the line of scrimmage with Missouri trailing Tennessee 19-8. Brown ran a simple out route and went to the ground to haul in Lock’s 6-yard throw. The game ended two plays later.
Not exactly a memorable moment, but it was historically significant for Brown. The next time he caught a pass for the Tigers was 671 days later.
Two seasons largely lost to injury – torn ankle ligaments kept him out for all of 2016, and shoulder surgery restricted him throughout 2017 – and now the 6-foot-2 Brown is back atop the depth chart, a valuable senior for a young and untested wide receiver corps.
Fully healthy for the first time in three years, 2018 is a chance for Brown, Missouri’s leader in touchdown receptions in 2015, to shine again.
“I definitely feel that way,” Brown said Friday after Missouri’s first fall practice of the year, “and I feel like a lot of guys in the room feel like this year we have something to prove.”
The Tigers are dealing with wide receiver attrition just one day into the fall season. Harry Ballard III, a Florissant native and transfer from Jones Community College in Mississippi, was not listed on the initial fall roster. Coach Barry Odom said Ballard, who was present throughout spring practice, is “away right now with a personal issue” and hopes the Tigers “can get him back in camp quick.”
Missouri also lost an incoming freshman receiver in Danny Gray, who did not qualify academically. Gray is now at Blinn College, a junior college in Brenham, Texas, according to his Twitter account.
That leaves the Tigers with 10 receivers on scholarship. Brown, all-Southeastern Conference wideout Emanuel Hall and shifty slot Johnathon Johnson lead the line. Behind them are two talented juniors (the 5-foot-11 Richaud Floyd and 6-2 Oregon transfer Alex Ofodile), an untested junior in Justin Smith – and four freshmen.
“We’ve got a whole group of guys that are really skilled at a high level at that position,” Odom said. “Now we’ve got to find the right spots to get them incorporated in. As a coaching staff, our charge has gotta be – it doesn’t matter if he’s a fifth-year senior or this is his first practice, we’ve got to get him ready to play.”
Unlike Brown, Hall didn’t have two seasons largely erased by injuries. He did, however, miss the Texas Bowl with a pulled hamstring and missed the spring game with a shoulder injury he suffered in the last practice of the spring.
The Tigers’ go-route specialist has more on his plate than just running in straight lines this season, even though that one skill made him impossible to stop for many SEC defenses last year.
“I don’t look at media too much, but people kept saying I couldn’t run the routes, which I thought was funny,” Hall said. “They were telling me to run deep, and I was like, ‘If I can run deep and beat somebody, why would I run the slant?’”
This season, offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s new system includes a full pro-style route tree, much more complex than the one used by his predecessor, Josh Heupel.
Learning the route tree has been Hall’s summer project. Former NFL wide receiver coach Dooley told Hall it’s a key for his own development, and as Missouri’s No. 1 receiver, the Tigers will need him for more than just home-run balls.
That means adding dig routes, crossing patterns and slants to his arsenal.
“I really want to take a slant like 70 yards,” Hall said. “That’s one of my main goals this year. I really haven’t done that my whole career, so that would be awesome.”
Missouri’s leading outside receivers will move in together Tuesday. Hall said Brown’s specialty is in running precise routes and hopes Brown’s ability will rub off on him.
Brown has a request, too.
“I hope his speed rubs off a little on me, because he’s burning them defenders,” Brown said.
UGLY TRUTH: Terez Hall wasn’t deterred by the lack of support. Shortly before fall camp began, he forced his defensive teammates to relive the worst performance of 2017: the season-opening debacle against Missouri State.
The FCS Bears posted 43 points and racked up 492 total yards on Missouri that day and had three touchdowns go for more than 60 yards.
The memory was still fresh enough for the Tigers to try to talk Hall out of showing them the tape. He was resolute.
“You gotta see where you come from,” Hall said. “You’ve got to see where you’re at on your lowest point. It’s hard watching that film because we were all out of place, we weren’t physical enough, we couldn’t tackle as well — you had to see how bad you were to see where you want to go.”
So into the film room the defense went, led by Hall, who spent the previous two days rounding up the squad to make sure the meeting actually happened.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Why, why, why?’” Hall recalled.
Hall scoffed at the notion that the team would have used the opportunity to joke around or rag on each other for the numerous errors the tape showed. Instead, it was like watching their own Zapruder film – dissecting each play, reliving each breakdown. The players that were around from the year before called out their assignments as they remembered them.
There was the clinical 12-play, 65-yard drive Missouri State queued up on its first possession to make the score 7-7.
There was the Bears’ second touchdown, a running play on third-and-10 that went for a 75-yard score.
There was the 84-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter by Malik Earl, who took a slant to the house after DeMarkus Acy and Anthony Hines collided trying to make a tackle in the middle of the field.
The offense went on to score enough for a 72-43 win, but it was enough to make Terry Beckner Jr. sick.
“It was very painful. I wanted to shut it off while I was watching it,” Beckner said. “I kept going, ‘We need to cut this off.’ You’ve gotta watch it and embrace it.”
The lesson in all of this, Hall and Beckner said, is to respect your opponent. Missouri did not do so in Week 1 last year. The result was getting torched by one of the weakest offenses in the Missouri Valley Conference.
“Just don’t let up. On any day, any team can get beat,” Beckner said. “You look back on the stuff that you did wrong and make sure you’re not doing that.”