Entering the 2023 campaign, everybody knew that Missouri had a budding star in the wide receiver room. Luther Burden III, a former 5-star recruit out of East St. Louis, made an immediate impact in ‘22 and in turn, became the face of the Tiger offense.
But, no offense can be successful with just one perimeter threat on the field. For every Jeremy Maclin there was a Will Franklin, for every Dorial Green-Beckham there was a L’Damian Washington and for every J’Mon Moore there was an Emmanuel Hall. Even with new offensive coordinator Kirby Moore entering the fray to spark the offensive attack, this unit could not be “Burden-or-Bust” in ‘23.
There were plenty of worthy candidates to step into the WR2 role. Mekhi Miller had already come into his own at the end of last season and appeared to be ready to take a step forward during his sophomore campaign. Theo Wease Jr. (Oklahoma) and Dannis Jackson (Ole Miss) transferred in to bolster the depth, and freshmen Marquis Johnson, Daniel Blood, Josh Manning and Nicholas Deloach were all talented prospects in the Class of 2023. Add in Mookie Cooper, who was looking to put together a season that could land him on an NFL roster next year, and you have a plethora of candidates to be Burden’s main running mate.
Through four weeks, the way the cookie has crumbled in the receiver room has been intriguing to follow. Moore’s offense has proven to be effective at emphasizing its personnel’s strengths and deceiving defenses with distracting motions/routes. In turn, certain individuals have benefited greatly.
Theo Wease Jr. | Senior
2023 Stats: 14 catches, 136 yards, 9.7 YPC, 2 touchdowns
Wease was one of the most highly sought-after receivers in the Class of 2018, ranking as a 5-star in 247 Sports’ Composite and holding offers from nearly every Power Five program you can think of.
After a productive, but not necessarily flashy, 4-year career with Oklahoma in which he missed most of the ‘21 season due to injury, Wease came to Columbia in search of a fresh start.
The 6-foot-2 receiver brought with him plenty of college experience and a great ability to win 50/50 balls and thus was the favorite to be the team’s second-leading receiver. After recording three catches for 17 yards in the opener against South Dakota, Wease scored his first touchdown on an out-route against MTSU. Then, the former Sooner exploded for six catches and 72 yards in the K-State game and followed that up with 29 yards and another score against Memphis.
Moore has certainly leaned towards using Wease as a red zone target, as both of his touchdowns have come on outbreaking routes designed to give him a one-on-one chance with a ball in the air. He’s won those battles thus far, and he’s also displayed a sure set of hands as well.
On top of that, the staff and offensive players frequently comment on Wease’s leadership and how quickly he became comfortable with the team. It shouldn’t be too surprising, as he’s technically in his fifth season of college football with another year of eligibility should he choose to take it. Wease figures to become a more prominent piece of the offense as Moore continues to learn how to use him effectively and his chemistry with Cook develops.
Marquis Johnson | Freshman
2023 Stats: 2 catches, 118 yards, 59.0 YPC, 1 touchdown
“Sucker is fast as lightning.”
That’s what Eliah Drinkwitz said about Marquis Johnson following the team’s win over Memphis on Sunday. He also went on to say that the offense needs to get him the ball more, a statement that Moore had previously agreed upon. Mookie Cooper even went as far as to say that Johnson was the fastest player on the team following the win over Kansas State.
The head coach, offensive coordinator and fellow receiver can speak far more on Johnson’s early-season success than I can, but the true freshman has impressed me on multiple levels so far. Johnson has seemingly filled the vertical void left by Dominic Lovett, flying by defenders for pivotal, explosive catches against Kansas State and Memphis. He still has plenty of room to grow, and the staff figures to be looking at Johnson for at least 2-3 deep shots per game from now on. And, even if he does not end up being the direct benefactor, Drinkwitz said after the Memphis game that Johnson plays a key role in opening up space for other receivers downfield. It’s just the kind of impact that Cooper has with his speed, and he opened up the field for Burden on his 28-yard reception against Memphis in the third quarter.
Lastly, Johnson spoke like a fifth-year senior—not a freshman—to the media. He was very professional and well-spoken following the Memphis game, giving the answers that would make any SID proud. You could’ve told me that he was an upperclassman and I would have readily believed you.
What a start for Mizzou!— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) September 24, 2023
Brady Cook hits Marquis Johnson for 761yard touchdown on the third play against Memphis pic.twitter.com/pdfXH0HIDP
Johnson when asked about this play: “The corner pressed, I saw green, and it was just ‘gotta go!’” I would imagine that not many other DBs will press Johnson from here on out.
Mookie Cooper | Junior
2023 Stats: 8 catches, 137 yards, 17.1 YPC
Similar to Wease, Cooper was a highly-touted high school product who did not exactly pan out at his first stop. The 5-star recruit out of St. Louis opted to attend Ohio State, but after not seeing the field in 2020 for the Buckeyes, Cooper chose to move closer to home.
Many expected the slippery athlete to become an immediate star for Mizzou, but the ‘21 and ‘22 seasons were up and down for Cooper. Over the course of those two seasons, Cooper recorded 43 catches, 492 receiving yards and one touchdown. He was frequently targeted on screens and short-game passing, but Cooper was rarely able to get loose in the open field.
Under Moore, we have seen Cooper push downfield more often, giving him more space to operate in one-on-one tackling scenarios. That, in turn, plays to his strength of being a dynamic runner with the ball in his hands.
Throughout his career, Cooper has shown flashes of his ability to be a playmaker who can kickstart an offense. In 2023, he appears to be putting everything together, and Moore is utilizing him far more effectively than the staff did the previous two seasons.
“We got the win, and to know that I played a part makes it feel a lot better,” Cooper said following his four catch, 79-yard performance against K-State.
Cooper could have transferred again this offseason, but he decided to stay at Mizzou because of what this team returned. After biding his time for two years, Cooper appears set to have his best collegiate season this fall.
Mekhi Miller | Sophomore
2023 Stats: 5 catches, 65 yards, 13.0 YPC, 1 touchdown
While there was certainly an influx of talent to the WR room this offseason, the returning Miller was expected to continue to be a prominent figure in the Tiger offense this season. After all, he ended last season by bursting onto the scene with a clutch performance against Arkansas and received more playing time as the ‘22 campaign went on.
Through four weeks, a hand injury has held Miller back at times, and he has not taken the leap forward that many expected him to take.
And that is perfectly fine.
After all, Miller is a true sophomore who is growing within the college game, and he is still being targeted frequently in games. He flashed his talents with 49 yards and a touchdown against South Dakota, and he remains a quality target for Cook to throw to. The best is yet to come for him, and I’d argue that the Tigers will still need Miller to come up with some big plays in pivotal moments this season.
His toughness is something that has stood out Drinkwitz as well:
“When he got hurt, his finger bent back on a helmet. He had to have 11 stitches in the webbing of his finger, it was completely ripped,” Drinkwitz said following the K-State game. “He had one stitch pop out during the first half, and he still played the entire game.”