COLUMBIA — Looking at the stat sheet, Missouri junior wide receiver Wes Kemp has had a poor preseason. But Kemp's teammates and coaches are not worried. In fact, they chuckle at the notion that Kemp is underachieving. That's because they know how vital Kemp is to the success of the Missouri offense, even when he's not catching the ball.
With the injury to fellow junior Jerrell Jackson, Kemp lines up as the top returning receiver for the 2010 Tigers. But in two August scrimmages, Kemp only has one reception for five total yards — numbers that won't keep opposing Big 12 coaches up at night.
So why aren't Kemp's coaches worried? Because Kemp's role in the offense goes beyond catching the ball — he has a hand, two in fact, in nearly every play the Tigers run.
Kemp lines up as an outside receiver, sometimes as far as 15 yards away from the offensive line, but his blocking ability is crucial to the success of the Missouri offense. Blocking is frequently the forgotten responsibility of a wide receiver, but it's a dirty job Kemp takes pride in doing. In fact, Kemp views blocking as equally important to catching passes.
"You have to be a multi-dimensional receiver in this offense," Kemp said. "I tell D-Wash (running back Derrick Washington) I have real estate on the outside, just come find me."
Kemp's blocking abilities are key on running plays, but also when the Tigers run screen passes, and if preseason practices are any indication of what's to come, the Tigers will be increasing the frequency of both types of plays in the 2010 season.
Kemp's willingness to do a selfless job is not lost on his teammates. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert, for one, doesn't have enough superlatives with which to label Kemp. Without any of the team's offensive linemen around, Gabbert called Kemp the best blocker on the team.
Offensive coordinator Dave Yost oversees the entire offense and said Kemp's blocking abilities are vastly undervalued by the casual observers and fans.
"He's really become, at times, a dominant blocker for us, and a guy who we can kind of lean on," Yost said.
But while the blocking part of Kemp's game is in top form, he is aware that the more glamorous part of the position, catching balls, has not been up to par this August.
"It's really been a grind, I'm just trying to get through it," Kemp said. "No, I don't think I am where I need to be."
Kemp said that he is working on tweaking little things, like his route running, in hopes that he can be playing his best football before the Tigers' opening game on Sept. 4 against Illinois.
Kemp, despite starting every game he played in 2009, only had 10 receptions in eight Big 12 conference games last year, a funk that Yost said he is breaking out of.
"He's getting back to into his zone, his comfort level, getting some of his confidence back," Yost said. "He kind of had some days where he doubted himself a little bit. As a coaching staff, we never doubted him for a bit."
A tireless player who's work ethic is among the best on the team, Kemp certainly is harder on himself than others are. Gabbert said that Kemp has had a great preseason, despite the stats, and refused to limit Kemp's potential to that of a possession receiver.
"He's bigger, faster than (former Missouri wide receiver) Tommy Saunders," Gabbert said. "He's big enough to be a possession type guy, but he's a big playmaker. He's got the wheels to get over the secondary."
Yost, too, sees many possibilities in the offense for Kemp. Specifically, Yost is trying to put Kemp in situations where he can run with the ball after a catch.
"He's a guy we want to get the ball in his hands," Yost said referencing Kemp's 56-yard catch-and-run against Navy in the 2009 Texas Bowl. "We want to get him the ball in space and give him room to run. He runs to score, he runs violently."
Kemp, a St. Louis native, will get his chance to put his game on display and wash away any disappointing summer performances when the Tigers face Illinois in St. Louis at Edward Jones Dome.
"It's going to be fun," Kemp said.