COLUMBIA — The sequence provided MU football fans a sliver of his promise.
There, late in the third quarter, awaited redshirt freshman wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, a mystery shrouded in potential and speed. Seconds later, he cradled an Illinois punt at the MU 34, his brown eyes glaring upfield as he threaded the right flat, burning forward while pumping his thick calf muscles with greater purpose following each yard. Then, at the Illinois 37, the spectacle's coda, he made a half-yard cut that spun tight end Jeff Cumberland like a pinwheel swallowed by a summertime breeze, defenders lingering behind his cleats like an orange fog.
"I try to look past that," Maclin said of his breakout game last season against Illinois. "I'm in the starter role this year. I have different expectations of myself. I need to play more of a leader role. Hopefully, things can come together."
They will if Maclin captivates MU fans Saturday with a similar performance in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. In his first game since returning from a torn right ACL that sidelined him for the 2006 season, Maclin dazzled unexpecting eyes with two touchdowns last year, the punt return and a 25-yard reception, also in the third quarter. A year older, Maclin will return as a first-team All-American and Heisman contender - a far cry from his former mystery.
MU coach Gary Pinkel observed Maclin's progression. Pinkel remembered viewing tapes of Maclin torching hapless high school secondaries, understanding the Kirkwood product could become elite. During spring practice in 2006, Pinkel knew that Maclin had performed well enough, but Maclin's gunpowder lacked a fuse. Then, a eureka moment. Maclin, seasoned with summer experience, returned for fall two-a-days a changed player. His fire, the same blaze that scorched Illinois and later Big 12 defenses, had sparked.
"He was a lot different player when he came back for two-a-days," Pinkel said. "He had been through the whole summer and the spring. He was a lot different player. To expect any player to play like that, in his first game, that really just kind of defines him."
Maclin's threat has defined defensive strategies against MU's spread. Later during the 2007 season, with Maclin's reputation growing, defenses devised double- and triple-team strategies. The Tigers adapted. Quarterback Chase Daniel scanned additional options such as tight end Chase Coffman and wide receiver Tommy Saunders, and the offense evolved.
"He's just such an explosive playmaker," Daniel said. "He just gives us another dynamic on the offensive side of the ball. Other teams wish they had something like that, because he opens other people up."
He does, and he's better for it. A year after his initial brush with the limelight, Maclin is eager to return for more.
"Just how much smarter I've become," Maclin said of what he has learned about himself over the past year. "And that comes from film study and getting a year older in the system."
FISHER READY: Redshirt freshman Elvis Fisher will make his first start at left tackle Saturday, in front of true freshman Dan Hoch. Fisher, who began fall drills as the No. 2 option at the position, split time working with the top two offensive lines during spring ball.
"I don't know what quite to expect yet," Fisher said, "but I'm sure once I get out there and get in that first play in, everything will just (fall into place)."
NEW DEFENSIVE SCHEMES: Daniel told reporters MU's defense showed a greater variation of schemes than past training camps. That doesn't come as a surprise to senior defensive end Stryker Sulak, who recorded 60 tackles last year, including a team-best 11 for losses.
"That's something that (defensive coordinator Matt) Eberflus has been looking at," Sulak said.
"All the assistants want to trick the other coaches, and give them different looks, and that's definitely part of our defense."
DANIEL A FUTURE COACH?: Daniel was asked whether he would consider becoming a coach after his playing days. For the time being, he's concentrating on the task at hand.
"Who knows," Daniel said. "I like being out there and being the head of the troops. But that's a long time from now . . . we'll see what happens."
40-SECOND RULE ADJUSTMENTS: Pinkel said the new 40-second clock rule caused some evaluation of the way his staff conducts special teams substitutions. Similar to the NFL, a 40-second clock will begin at the end of each play this season. The old rule featured a 25-second clock that did not start until officials marked the ball.
"We looked at kicking substitutions a little bit," Pinkel said. "We were concerned about that, how quick you get (in) the kicking subsitutions. I think some referees in the past might have blown it if they saw the kicking team come in and we delayed the 25-second clock."
FRESHMEN UPDATES: Pinkel revealed updates about possible playing time for true freshmen this season. During his morning Big 12 media teleconference Monday, Pinkel said wide receivers Wes Kemp and Michael Egnew (formerly a tight end) are expected to play. Citing wide receiver Gahn McGaffie's strained big toe, Pinkel said the former high school quarterback from Galena Park, Texas, will not see the field. It's still unknown whether safety Kenji Jackson will play.
INJURIES: Pinkel identified wide receiver Danario Alexander (knee surgery) as the only player who will not absolutely play Saturday. Linebacker Van Alexander, also recovering from a knee surgery, will travel and dress with the team but remains doubtful. Wide receiver Jared Perry (shoulder) practiced over the weekend and is expected to play, as is Coffman (pinkie finger).