WACO, Texas — Quarterback Brad Smith has found a reliable, big target down around the goal line in tight end Martin Rucker.
Rucker, a 6-foot-5 redshirt freshman from St. Joseph, helped jumpstart the Missouri offense, catching two touchdowns in the Tigers’ 30-10 win at Baylor on Saturday night. Rucker has caught nine passes this season, three of them for touchdowns.
“You can put it up there, and he goes and gets it,” Smith said. “And he has a good feel for space.”
Rucker’s first score Saturday night came with 1:41 left in the second quarter with the Tigers (4-1, 2-0 Big 12 Conference) holding a precarious 6-3 lead. After Smith faked a handoff, he rolled to his left and hit Rucker in the back corner of the end zone.
“When you let a team hang around and hang around and hang around, sooner or later in the end, it comes back to bite you,” Rucker said. “Once we got that first one, it kind of got us rolling, and then we started moving the ball and scoring.”
Rucker also said the play reestablished the Tigers’ confidence in their red-zone offense. Despite getting a 17-9 home win against Colorado on Oct. 2, the Tigers had to settle for four field-goal attempts. The same red-zone struggles appeared early Saturday. The Tigers attempted three field goals before Rucker’s first touchdown.
After jumping on Troy 14-0 in the first quarter Sept. 9, the Tigers failed to put them away. The Trojans slowly built confidence as Missouri’s dropped and scored 24 points to win 24-14.
On the first touchdown, Rucker drifted away from the Baylor defender. The play showed his ability to find open spaces in the secondary, an ability that has impressed coach Gary Pinkel.
“First of all, he’s a very mature competitor,” Pinkel said. “He’s got a lot of play-making ability. He’s that kind of a guy. For 19 and a redshirt freshman, that’s pretty exciting.”
Rucker showed off his strength on his second touchdown, which capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive to open the second half. He caught a ball from Smith at about the 3-yard line then carried two defenders across the goal line.
Rucker, though, isn’t ready to declare himself as one of Smith’s favorite targets.
“I don’t know if I’d say all that,” he said. “I just was the guy that was open down there both times, so I got the ball.”
Although Pinkel said Rucker is mature for his age, Rucker said he would like to think teams don’t focus much attention on him because of his lack of experience.
“Maybe teams kind of forget about me,” Rucker said. “Or I’m kind of young, so they don’t key on me that much. That just allows me to snake through the defense, and I’m open.”
Rucker has proved his worth despite his youth. Rucker’s three touchdowns ranks second on the team behind wide receiver Sean Coffey, who has four. Rucker caught his first touchdown on his first collegiate reception, a 24-yarder from Smith to score the Tigers’ first touchdown of the year.
Despite his early season success, Rucker isn’t taking anything for granted.
“A redshirt freshman starting, any role you get in the offense is good,” he said.