Andy Hill, Missouri’s wide receivers coach, must feel like he is trying to piece together a Justin Gage jigsaw puzzle.
Several of Missouri’s receivers have something in common with Gage, but it is yet to be seen which of them will pick up the slack.
Senior Darius Outlaw is a converted quarterback, sophomore Sean Coffey wears the same number, sophomore Chris Crosby is from Missouri and junior Thomson Omboga has the self-confidence to succeed. They will all have to fit together perfectly to fill the gap left by Gage, who caught 82 passes for 1,075 yards to earn All-Big 12 Conference first team status last season.
“Gage is a big hole,” Hill said. “He’s caught 75 and 82 passes the last two years. We’ll see if somebody in this group, or this group as a whole, can step up and fill that.”
Crosby, who is from St. Louis, caught one pass in four games last season but has showed coaches enough potential to move up to second on the depth chart at one receiver position. He is taking a different approach to Gage’s departure.
“We don’t see our task as trying to replace Gage, we see our task as trying to get better, get faster, get stronger,” Crosby said. “We want to get downfield with speed and be ready for everything that Brad (Smith) has to offer.”
The one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that the Tigers will have to spread the ball around more.
“It is a concern that Gage is gone, but we don’t want to focus on that,” Omboga said. “We think that if we distribute the ball enough, with the talent we have, we can achieve things that he did as a group. We don’t just have one person who can do what Gage did, but as a team, I think we can do it.”
Coach Gary Pinkel said none of the receivers have stood out thus far, but Outlaw’s vocal nature and enthusiasm have made him the obvious leader of this year’s receiving corps. He was second on the team last season with 46 catches for 552 yards. Like Gage, Outlaw moved to receiver from quarterback and has learned his new position quickly. Outlaw hopes the similarities don’t stop there.
“Justin just went in and took full control of it,” Outlaw said. “Now I got changed and I want to take full control of it. I want to take everything he did and run with it. I want to do what he did, but better. If I do that, we’re bound to win a lot of games.”
Outlaw said the offense will try to improve its long passing game this season, stretching the defense to open the field for the running game.
“That’s what we want to do,” Outlaw said. “Last year, people said we threw a lot of under routes. Right now, we’re working on getting the ball down the field to open up the offense more to get Zack (Abron), Damien (Nash) and Brad (Smith) some more room to run.”
Gage was the best deep threat a year ago, but Outlaw and Coffey have both looked good running fly and fade routes this fall.
At 6 feet 5 and 220 pounds, Coffey looks eerily similar to Gage when in uniform. Now, he wears the same number, 12, a bold move considering Gage holds nearly every receiving record at Missouri.
“He was a good all-around receiver and left some big shoes to fill,” Coffey said. “I knew what I was getting into when I changed the number, even though it had nothing to do with him. I’m ready for the challenge.”
Coffey, who has been impressive in fall practice, insists the number change had nothing to do with Gage.
“That’s just superstition,” Coffey said. “That’s my high school number, that’s all. I wore number 12 every year I played football until I got here.”
ON THE OUTS: Sophomore safety Brandon Smith has left the program, Pinkel said after Monday’s morning practice. Smith played in all 12 games at linebacker last season and had 17 tackles.