COLUMBIA — Jared Perry doesn’t get intimidated easily.
As a sophomore receiver for the Missouri football team, he plays against angry giants who drool at the chance to rip his head off. And at 6-foot-1 and 170 pounds, he’s undersized for his position. But that doesn’t scare him. He’s used to it.
When Perry was young, he spent his free time playing tackle football with his older brothers and cousins. He was easily the youngest on the field, but that didn’t deter him from going across the middle to make a catch. Sometimes his route would end in a loud crunch from colliding with an eager defender, but he would always come down with the ball.
“That’s why I’m not scared to go head-up with anybody,” Perry said.
That toughness has allowed him to excel throughout his football career. It has also helped him deal with taking a more reserved role on the team this season after shining as a true freshman in 2006.
Perry has never had to worry about fitting into a pair of jeans. Like his older brother Brandon Perry, he was born without much cushion. He tried to put on weight when he began playing football, but nothing worked. He ate meat as if he were Japanese competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi at a hot dog eating contest. He lifted weights every day but didn’t gain a pound.
When MU recruiters traveled to La Marque (Texas) High School to see Perry play, they saw a lanky receiver who weighed 148 pounds. But they also saw a fearless competitor whose abilities compensated for his lack of size. In his senior year alone, Perry had 32 catches for 540 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“(He has) true quickness and play-making ability,” wide receivers coach Andy Hill said. “He’s as quick as a cat. It’s very hard to get your hands on him.”
Perry’s weight dipped further his senior year after he ran track in the spring. When he reported to MU for summer workouts, coaches saw his bony stature and were skeptical that he would be physically ready to play.
But under the guidance of Pat Ivey, assistant athletic director for athletic performance, Perry began a strict regime to bulk up. He became a gym rat and started downing protein shakes like they were Kool-Aid. He was up to a whopping 160 pounds.
“He beefed up, if you want to say that,” Hill said with a smile.
Perry’s stronger body allowed him to sustain his block longer, bounce off tacklers and make more plays. The coaches decided he was too good to keep on the sidelines and opted to forgo his redshirt season.
Perry didn’t take long to prove the coaches right. He caught three passes for 54 yards and a touchdown in the 2006 opener against Murray State. He continued to contribute in a limited role until the 11th game of the season, when starting receiver Will Franklin tore the labrum in his right shoulder against Iowa State, ending his season.
The coaches called on Perry to fill the spot left open by the team’s best receiver. Like his days in the backyard, Perry refused to back down from the challenge.
He caught three passes for 81 yards, including a 74-yard bomb that went for a touchdown in his first career start against Kansas.
That game proved to Perry, and everyone else, that he belonged.
“I just knew I could make plays,” he said.
Perry finished the season with 37 catches for 429 yards and three touchdowns. Racking up awards proved to be much easier than gaining weight. He was named the freshman of the year for the Tigers, an honorable mention freshman All-American and a member of the Big 12 All-Freshman team.
This season figured to be even bigger for Perrry. He gained 10 more pounds in the offseason and had an impressive fall camp. But with Franklin fully recovered from the shoulder injury and freshman Jeremy Maclin playing like a human highlight reel, Perry was suddenly the odd man out.
Through nine games, he ranks seventh on the team with 11 catches for 138 yards and is without a touchdown. A starter since his freshman year of high school, Perry was frustrated at his decreased role. He lost focus during practice and began dropping balls. He was virtually invisible against Texas Tech and Iowa State, failing to catch a pass in either game.
“It was getting a little frustrating for me,” he said. “But the main thing was, I just tried to be positive for my teammates, because the one thing that was on my mind was we kept winning.”
His confidence waning, Perry called his big brother, a former receiver at Sam Houston State, and asked for advice.
“I told him you’ve got to be patient,” Brandon Perry said. “He wants to be the go-to guy, but I told him, ‘You still got two years of football left. When you get the opportunities this year, make the best of them, and show the coaches you will go out and play your hardest.’”
Perry listened to his brother. He came to practice refocused. He went hard every snap and caught anything that came his way, and Hill took notice.
“We always talk about how you (should) practice like you play,” he said. “(Perry) was playing hard and practicing hard. That’s the biggest difference I saw.”
Perry’s effort was rewarded on Saturday against Colorado. He caught a 45-yard pass down the sideline on one play and a 15-yard bullet between two defenders on another.
Perry was back to his old fearless self.
“He has a big heart,” Franklin said. “He doesn’t let his size or anything get between what he does.”