COLUMBIA - The field is empty. Almost empty. His coach is addressing a group of reporters. His teammates are engaged in leisurely conversations with each other in the traditional after-practice ice bath.
Meanwhile, Tommy Saunders is still on the practice field, giving the freshmen receivers a bit of extra help after an early-morning summer practice. Pointing, directing, demonstrating. Investing.
at No. 6 Missouri (2-0)
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Memorial Stadium
TV: Fox Sports Net
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
JACKED: Follow the game online with Jacked, a second screen Web platform you can find online at ColumbiaMissourian.com. Track statistics as they happen, chat with a Missourian reporter covering the game, view photos, video and link to other media, all while the game is being played.
The scene might be ironic if recruiting rankings were an end-all, be-all. Saunders is route-running proof they aren't.
Now a senior captain, Saunders arrived at MU as a walk-on, spending his freshman redshirt season mimicking the offense of that week's opponent on the scout team. Four years later, the Tigers have a talented, highly recruited crop of freshman receivers who showed against Southeast Missouri State they're prepared to contribute right away. As a freshman, playing wasn't a luxury Saunders had, so now, he takes it upon himself to pass down what he's learned in his time in Columbia.
"Brad Ekwerekwu, Will Franklin, Arnold Britt, Sean Coffey, they were all over me, helping me," Saunders said. "I'm just trying to pass that on, what I was taught from the older guys, and help these young guys be the best they can be for this team."
Although Saunders is slow to acknowledge the results of his efforts, freshman receivers Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson both collected their first career catches Saturday.
After this particular practice, Jackson, a forgotten man in what was considered coach Gary Pinkel's best recruiting class, is the talk of camp. Saunders says he saw in Jackson a little bit of himself, an underdog who could-be. A summer of work, however, has the freshman wowing media and fans, hauling in catch after catch in what seems like a beeline effort to make it on the field during those special Saturdays come fall.
"We can't get better if we don't have someone to look up to," Jackson said. "We need people to teach us so we can be better as the years go on."
He must have learned something. Jackson led the Tigers in receiving during their 52-3 win against SEMO last week, hauling in six catches for 70 yards.
If improvement is what they're looking for, again, look no further than Saunders, a can't-miss face, covered with a thick beard and topped by a frizzy Afro that makes him perhaps the most recognizable man on a team with a Heisman candidate and a pair of returning All-Americans. The Kearney native caught 41 balls as a junior, four more than in his past three seasons combined. Improvement, though, isn't the first thing out of the mouths of the coaching staff when they speak of the receiver, a self-proclaimed fitness freak who famously did 100,084 sit-ups during the 2006 calendar year.
"Work ethic," offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said. "His work ethic is second to none, year-round, since he's been here. That's why he's such a great leader, because he leads by example."
Although everyone around Saunders describes him as the ultimate team player, tirelessly working to make everyone around him maximize his potential, Saunders chooses to take the humble route, and says instilling responsibility is the wrong term for what he does for the underclassmen.
"I've been there, and it's hard trying to come into Division I and just play," Saunders said. "I just try and be there when I can and help these guys, whether it be on-the-field stuff or off-the-field stuff and balancing the college life with football. I just love this game."
Saunders' prize student the last two seasons, sophomore Jeremy Maclin, headlines a receiving corps that possessed the enviable task of divvying up quarterback Chase Daniel's 4,306 passing yards last season, a number that wide receivers coach Andy Hill's unit will try to improve on in 2008.
"The guy's an animal," Maclin said of Saunders' work ethic. "He's taught me that those things that you're not blessed with, you've got to go out there and work harder so you can make up for them."
Granted, for Maclin, that list is pretty short.
"J-Mac does a real good job of listening," Saunders said. "You tell him something one time, and he would do it."
Now, Maclin's role has shifted from pupil to professor, proof that passing down lessons is now a tradition.
"J-Mac, Jared Perry, all the guys, Chase Coffman, they constantly are behind (the freshmen) in our no-huddle talking to our kids when they come back, coaching them," Pinkel said. "It's not only Tommy, but all our kids did that, and they did it all summer. I think that's why a lot of these receivers have had a chance to play early, because of the coaching of our veteran receivers."
Maybe it's all the talk of the team as a family passing down lessons. Maybe it's the beard that seems to grow thicker by the minute. With Saunders' seniority and passing down lessons to two generations, could he be the grandfather of the receiving corps?
"I don't know if I'd go that far," Christensen said. "Maybe a big brother."