COLUMBIA — Two years ago, T.J. Moe was one of the best high school quarterbacks in Missouri. But on Thursday, Moe, now a sophomore on the Missouri football team, lined up as the No. 1 receiver in one of the most pass-happy offenses in the NCAA.
It's funny what one preseason injury can do.
The Tigers' running backs had a good day of practice Thursday. Read about that and other highlights at the Missourian's sports blog
After junior wide receiver Jerrell Jackson broke a bone in his left wrist Wednesday, Moe became the go-to guy for quarterback Blaine Gabbert. As the first receiver Gabbert looks to when the ball is snapped, Moe is arguably in the most important position on the team. This, despite never being a wide receiver before joining the Tigers.
But with the skills Moe possesses, it was inevitable he would be a playmaker for the Tigers. It was just a matter of when Moe, who has played in only 10 games at wide receiver, fully grasped his position and when the team needed him.
Moe, a 6-foot bundle of dynamite, is the best route runner on the team. His pedigree as a quarterback gives him exceptional field vision and a solid understanding of defenses, which he best uses against zone coverage. He signed with Missouri as an all-purpose athlete, but his hands and pop off the line of scrimmage made the decision to convert him to wide receiver easy.
"There's no question he charged out like a fish out of water. He's used to being with the ball in his hands under center, and now he's out in space. And all those things out in space are foreign to anyone who hasn't been out there," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "Now the bell's going to ring, maybe a lot faster than he thought it was going to ring, but that's also good."
Despite having only two receptions in his first year as a wide receiver, Moe's coaches and teammates say he has developed the abilities he needs to be successful.
"There's a maturation that happens. Last year at the end of the year he was starting to get it a little bit," Pinkel said. "We thought it was important to play him (last year), because we knew that experience playing him would help him be a player this year, and now he is."
"He's a stud, a flat-out stud. He's a versatile athlete, the plays he makes are amazing," Gabbert said. "He's just like Jerrell ... I'm looking forward to getting more reps with him. He's been running with the second team primarily. I'm excited to get a chance to throw to him."
Stepping into the a slot receiver position in the Missouri offense comes with expectations. Four first-team All-Americans have played in the slot for Missouri in the past three seasons. Jackson was expected to follow in the footsteps of Chase Coffman, Martin Rucker, Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander. But with Jackson's left hand in a cast for the next four to six weeks, the Tigers will depend on Moe.
"I was coming in here trying to earn a starting spot before Jerrell went down. My hopes were to be a starter going into the Illinois game as it was, with everyone healthy," Moe said. "Now our team needs someone to step up, and I'm trying to be that person."
Jackson said Thursday that the broken scaphoid bone in his left wrist will not require in-season surgery. The bone was not completely fractured, but a screw will probably be inserted in the offseason.
Barring a miraculous recovery, Jackson will miss the season opener Sept. 4 against Illinois. After Illinois, Missouri's three other September games are against non-BCS conference opponents, possibly giving Jackson more time to heal. Jackson said he's confident he will be at 100 percent for Missouri's first Big 12 Conference game, Oct. 9 against Colorado.
Until his return, Jackson is serving as Moe's personal coach.
"Everybody knows out here that T.J. can make plays, it's just a matter of getting himself started," Jackson said. "I'm going to be in his ear the whole time, and I think he's going to be OK."
The loss of Jackson is testing Missouri's crop of talented, but young and inexperienced, wide receivers earlier than the team would have preferred. Missouri's big question in 2010 will be if those wide receivers, Moe included, are ready for Big 12 competition.
"We have to answer those questions," Pinkel said. "We have some young guys who have to step up, and it's a great opportunity for them. We'll see what happens."
Redshirt sophomore Rolandis Woodland is one of the receivers Pinkel is expecting to do well. Woodland has been opposite junior Wes Kemp as one of Missouri's two starting outside receivers in preseason camp, but was the rookie amongst the starting wideouts. With Jackson now out, Woodland, who has five catches in his Missouri career, is now a relative veteran.
Woodland said the loss of Jackson was a wake up call to him and the rest of the wide receivers.
"Together as a group, our focus hasn't been there," Woodland said. "We just gotta come together and be more focused and stop making excuses. I mean, we have a game in 22 days. Our focus isn't there."
"Everybody's looking at me as a leader, and I have to perform," Woodland said.
Moe too, despite being a sophomore, is being looked at as a unit leader.
Even though Moe has learned an entirely new position, he has maintained a strong team-first mentality from his days as a quarterback, something that has helped Moe earn a reputation for being tough.
In 2009, Moe played with the lasting effects of a broken foot, an injury he played through his senior year of high school. Despite not being 100 percent when coming to Missouri, Moe climbed the depth chart and played in 10 games as a true freshman.
Jackson's injury, sustained during eleven-on-eleven drills, makes it clear Moe will need to be tough at the dangerous position he is playing.
But despite being undersized, Moe has shown he is willing to run the dangerous routes. Three times this preseason, Moe has been laid out by a gasp-inducing hit from a linebacker or safety. Each time Moe has popped right back up.