COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers knew they had a tremendous wide receiver primed for a breakout year this season.
They just didn’t know which one.
Heading into the season-opener against Illinois, it was sophomore Danario Alexander, not freshman Jeremy Maclin, who was expected to develop into the Tigers’ No. 1 receiving threat and wow fans with his sensational play.
But an injury against Illinois forced Alexander to sit out the next three games, and Maclin slid into his starting spot. Maclin, who sat out all of 2006 with a knee injury, went on to have one of the greatest freshman seasons in recent memory while Alexander struggled to find his role in an overcrowded receiving corps.
That was until this past Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium, where Alexander took center stage in front of a national audience and, using his wide array of talents to make key catches, helped the Tigers beat Kansas for the Big 12 North title.
Alexander’s performance against KU — eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown — was more of what MU coach Gary Pinkel and his coaching staff envisioned when they recruited him as a senior out of Marlin, Texas, two years ago.
With a 6-foot-5 frame and gifted abilities that allowed him to clear most kindergartners with a single leap, Alexander came to MU as one of the most talented recruits in his class.
“He’s a big-play athlete,” offensive coordinator Dave Christensen said. “He’s got great size, speed, jumping ability and great ball skills. He has all the intangibles to be a great wide receiver.”
Alexander’s big-play potential and hard work convinced the coaching staff to play him as a true freshman. He played in all 13 games last year, but his biggest contributions came toward the end of the season when he caught 11 passes in the last four games, including a 74-yard touchdown catch in the Sun Bowl.
His progression continued during spring practice when he was named the team’s most improved wide receiver, and a strong fall camp solidified Alexander’s starting spot in the opening-game lineup.
Against the Illini, Alexander immediately showed flashes of his skills. He already had eight catches in the game when he caught a 33-yard pass from Daniel late in the fourth quarter. Alexander didn’t notice the throbbing pain in his left wrist until he got back to the sideline.
He tried to ignore it, focusing on the game instead, but every time he looked down, the knot on his wrist grew bigger and bigger until it exploded to the size of a golf ball.
“Man, something’s wrong,” he said to himself.
Alexander found out after the game that his wrist was fractured and that it would need a month to heal. He was devastated.
“I was down,” he said, “But I knew I had to help push all my teammates from the sideline.”
The coaches were concerned too. It’s almost crazy now to think that there was ever a time when Maclin wasn’t a focal point of the offense, but until the Illinois game, no one knew how he’d respond from the knee injury that kept him out all of last season. Of course, Maclin became one of the most electrifying players in the country, and the Tigers’ offense remained lethal.
Alexander, meanwhile, became an afterthought.
While Alexander ran routes with a cast during his rehab, Maclin was earning Big 12 honors and racking up touchdowns. And as Alexander continued to feel his way back into the offense after coming back against Nebraska, Maclin was breaking the all-time freshman single-season record for all-purpose yards and getting nominated by Pontiac for his “game changing performances” against Texas A&M and Kansas State.
Alexander tries not to think about what could have been, and he insists he isn’t bitter.
“I worked hard all throughout the summer and fall camp to get there,” Alexander said. “But things happen for a reason.”
And what, exactly, was that reason?
“The resurrection of Jeremy Maclin.”
But Alexander was forgetting about his own rebirth. His production decreased when he got back from the injury, catching just 20 passes in the next seven games, but on Saturday, with the a berth in the Big 12 Championship at stake against the Jayhawks, Alexander had his greatest game as a Tiger.
And this time it was Alexander who made the game-changing play.
Up by a touchdown, the Tigers started a drive early in the second quarter at their own 2-yard line. Daniel led the team down the field, but the offense stalled at KU’s 11. On third down, Daniel faced a huge pass rush and scrambled back to the KU 33, raced back to the 20 and threw a perfect pass to Alexander, who had started inside but cut back to the corner of the end zone when he saw Daniel was in trouble.
Alexander scored, and a year’s worth of pent-up frustration was released.
“It was an adrenaline rush,” Alexander said. “You get up and you’re yelling as loud as you can at the top of your lungs. It’s amazing. I’ve never felt that before.”
With all his talent, it’s only a matter of time before he feels it again.