COLUMBIA — Bud Sasser was nowhere to be found.
The senior receiver wasn't among the initial group of Tigers that filed into the lobby of the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex to talk with the media Monday.
He was attending to another matter: watching game film with the freshman receivers.
"He's in there mentoring them right now," senior wideout Darius White said. "That's the type of person he is. He just tries to stay on top of his game and help the younger guys out."
If you've followed Missouri football during the offseason, you know the receiving corps has been in the spotlight. That spotlight grew brighter during fall camp as injuries threatened a thin-on-paper receiving corps and the offense struggled with consistency. As the Tigers' opener against South Dakota State looms, Missouri players aren't worried: They'll tell you the pass-catchers are in Sasser's capable hands.
Gone are Missouri's top three receivers from a year ago: Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington signed with NFL teams as undrafted free agents in May, and Dorial Green-Beckham was dismissed from the Tigers. That trio caught 25 of the Tigers' 31 touchdown passes last season. This year's starters — Sasser, White and Jimmie Hunt — hauled in one score each during 2013.
Replacing that pass-catching productivity is a priority for the Tigers. During camp, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff experimented with senior running back Marcus Murphy in the slot. Sophomore tight end Sean Culkin also lined up in the slot in four-receiver formations. But camp was tough on Tigers receivers: Hunt battled a hamstring injury, Gavin Otte sprained his ankle and Eric Laurent broke his finger.
The good news? The receiving corps is healthy (with the exception of Laurent, who is "day-to-day" according to a Missouri football spokesman). The bad news? Missouri's passing attack seemed to sputter in its three open-to-the-public scrimmages.
Tiger offensive linemen such as Evan Boehm and Mitch Morse will tell you there's no difference between the offense's execution this year compared to last year's preseason — only the faces have changed. And defensive lineman Lucas Vincent will shake his head if you ask him about the depth at wide receiver.
"I honestly don't think our receiving corps is thin," Vincent said. "We have a lot of great receivers, and Bud's taken control of the situation really well."
Sasser is Missouri's leading returning receiver in almost every statistical category. He hauled in 26 receptions for 361 yards and averaged 13.9 yards per catch in 2013. Perhaps more importantly, he's been named a team captain, a role his teammates said he's embraced.
Ask Boehm, Morse, Vincent or White about Sasser's leadership, and they'll tell you the captain took the freshman pass catchers under his wing. Film sessions with Tiger rookies — most notably Nate Brown and Lawrence Lee, both of whom made Missouri's updated depth chart — are an illustration of that.
When Sasser finally emerged from the film room Monday, he was his usual relaxed, smiling self.
He's not worried about the offense's inconsistency: People forget that the Tigers have a great defense, he said. Of course Maty Mauk can't throw a touchdown on every play.
And the stats of last year's starters versus this year's starters? That's not Sasser's focus. He's concerned about his crew catching the ball, blocking downfield and knowing the routes.
On Monday, film was his focus. He and the freshmen studied the following: What are South Dakota State's defensive backs' tendencies? Do they play to the boundary or to the inside toward the field? Do "they break on small steps, or are they long striders? Do they want to put their hands on you?"
Hands: Sasser said those are his best attribute as a receiver. White agrees.
"Tremendous hands, big body," White said.
And shoulders that can carry a big load.
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.