COLUMBIA, Mo. — As much as coach Barry Odom’s staff targeted wide receivers in his first couple recruiting classes, the Tigers either struck out or struggled to reel in any keepers. Players such as Dimetrios Mason, Harry Ballard, O’Shae Clark and DaRon Davis inspired hope when they chose Mizzou but each one either washed out of the program or never arrived.
Last year the Tigers missed on the state’s best receiver prospect when CBC’s Kamryn Babb picked Ohio State. But, as the season unfolded, MU found strength in numbers.
The Tigers’ 2018 receiver class hardly was the nation's most celebrated — Clemson, Florida, Louisiana State, Southern California and Texas all signed multiple top-20 ranked wideouts — but the trio of Jalen Knox, Kam Scott and Dominic Gicinto stood out in its own ways. Pressed into expanded roles because of depth issues at some point or another, the rookies combined to catch 50 passes for 804 yards and seven touchdowns. Missouri was the only Power 5 team with three true freshman wide receivers who caught touchdown passes. Florida State had two freshmen wideouts and one redshirt freshman catch a TD.
After Monday’s preseason practice, Knox said he expects much more to come.
“Last year was like a building block, just setting the foundation,” he said. “This year is when we really start building the house and getting everything put into place.”
Of the three wideouts, Knox played the least as a receiver in high school but quickly earned the biggest role in a rotation that featured senior Emanuel Hall on the outside. Knox, from Mansfield, Texas, dabbled at multiple positions in high school, from quarterback to running back to slot receiver. Mizzou shifted him to outside receiver, behind Hall.
But injuries sidelined Hall for long stretches, vaulting Knox into a leading role sooner than most expected, starting at Purdue in the season’s third week, when the freshman caught five passes for 110 yards and his first of three touchdowns.
After another 100-yard game against Memphis, Knox’s production slipped. He missed the Tennessee game because of a head injury and caught only four passes over the final five games. By November, he wasn't the same player that dazzled the coaches in August.
“I hit that wall where my body gave out,” Knox said, “because I really wasn’t taking care of it.”
The deeper the Tigers got into Southeastern Conference play, Knox struggled to fight off press coverage on the outside, something he never experienced at the high-school level. He quickly learned that a receiver who can't get open can't catch the ball.
“That was a skill set I didn’t even have yet,” he said.
After half an offseason in the weight room, Knox practiced better than anyone on the team during spring drills, Odom said. He reported to camp chiseled at 6 feet and 195 pounds.
“First of all, he's extremely fast,” said cornerback Richaud Floyd, who moved from receiver to defense in the spring. “He’s picked up more muscle from last year. He's taking care of his body better so that his body doesn’t break down at the end of the season. He’s just getting more mature and learning the offense at a much higher clip.”
“He’s a confident guy now,” quarterback Kelly Bryant said.
Scott, a deep threat reserve last year, could earn a bigger role with the kind of catches he made through the first two weeks of camp. He hauled in the only touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage, turning a slant into a 34-yard score.
“He's getting the offense down quicker, more than he did last year,” Floyd said. “And he is just a natural playmaker.”
Gicinto, the least heralded recruit of the three, was a quick study last year in the slot and should push senior starter Johnathon Johnson for snaps this fall. Gicinto was on the receiving end of the longest play Saturday, a 46-yard catch on a pass from Bryant.
Odom noted Gicinto is playing with more “savviness” this year.
“He's a quiet guy, but also has some leadership capabilities about himself,” Odom said. “He is a playmaker. And the thing we've talked over and over and you guys will be tired of me saying it, but it’s about the consistency of doing it with these guys. He’s got to show up every day and do it.”
With graduate transfer Jonathan Nance in place to start on the outside and Johnson back in the slot — the fifth-year senior is 882 yards away from Danario Alexander’s team record for career receiving yardage — the Tigers are stocked with experienced pass-catchers. The difference between a functional passing game and one of the SEC’s best could hinge on the three sophomores. With the foundation set, it's time to see how high they can build the house.