Luther Burden is different. You know it, I know it and every team Missouri plays knows it. He was a 5-star recruit - the best to commit to Missouri in a decade - for a reason. His commitment came with expectations. Those expectations might have been too lofty.
The most common complaints about Missouri’s offensive game plans against Kansas State and Auburn seem to in reference to Burden’s involvement, or more specifically, his lack of involvement. Heck, it became the main point Robert Griffin III made on the broadcast. How can you have a talent like this and not use him?
It’s a fair question. But is Burden’s usage actually a problem? I went back and watched every target and carry he’s had this season to find out. The results were... well, mixed.
1) Missouri needs to get Burden more “easy” touches
One of the most impressive aspects of Missouri’s game plans against Louisiana Tech and Abilene Christian was their ability and willingness to include Burden with manufactured touches. He lined up in the wildcat, had designed screens thrown his way and ran a couple end-arounds. Those are all easy ways to get the ball into Burden’s hands without requiring a contested catch or down-field throw from Brady Cook. But Burden only had one “manufactured touch” TOTAL against Kansas State and Auburn. How does that happen? It’s a fair question. And it shouldn’t happen again in the future.
2) Brady Cook needs to do a better job of connecting with Burden
It’s hard for me to explain what happened with Burden against Auburn. He only finished with 28 snaps offensively, with only 16 of those coming on pass plays. The majority of those snaps took place in the first half. Burden was seen in the injury tent at some point, but he was still utilized as the punt returner. It’s fair to question why he was used as a punt returner and sparingly offensively if he was legitimately hurt. But that’s a conversation for another day.
There wasn’t much of a connection between Cook and Burden against Auburn. Burden’s deep shot early in the game had no chance, the corner had blanket coverage on Burden on the pass that bounced up for the interception and his final target was another deep contested pass early in the fourth quarter.
The issues were in the Kansas State game. Cook threw a screen on 3rd & 18 well behind Burden, and it resulted in a drop. Burden had a step on his defender across the middle and nothing but grass in front of him early in the second quarter and instead of lofting it up to give Burden a chance, Cook threw a bullet that was just out of Burden’s reach and fell incomplete. Burden had two steps on a defender on a deep ball early in the third quarter and Cook overthrew him. That’s three instances in which Burden could have made a play for Missouri, but the quarterback didn’t give his guy a chance. That’s a significant part of this story.
3) Burden is still adjusting to the college game
Some of this is as simple as Burden is trying to work his way through what is a significant step up in competition. It’s not as easy to create separation at the line of scrimmage against Auburn or Kansas State cornerbacks as it was in college. Luther has been targeted 6 times against man-to-man defense. He has 1 catch.
If you want evidence of the development curve for a wide receiver, look no further than the step we’ve seen Dominic Lovett take from year one to year two. Lovett finished his freshman year with 26 receptions for 173 yards and zero receiving touchdowns. He is already up to 21 receptions for 376 yards and two touchdowns through the air through four games this season. He looks like a different player. That is not by accident. Winning at the line of scrimmage as a wide receiver is difficult at this level, and the competition only gets tougher from here.
4) Our expectations were probably unreasonably high for Burden’s freshman season
Luther Burden is currently on pace to finish his freshman season with 30 receptions for 234 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 21 carries for 120 yards and three touchdowns. That’s a combined 350 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns from scrimmage. Is that what we expected? No, maybe not. But it’s certainly not a throwaway freshman season.
If that were Burden’s final line, he would have more receptions than any Missouri true freshman blue chip wide receiver in the last 20 years, the second most yardage on that list (Dorial Green-Beckham, 395) and the most total touchdowns.
The average 5-star SEC freshman wide receiver over the last decade finished with 35 receptions for 472 yards and four touchdowns. Burden’s current projection is only slightly below those numbers if you take into account his rushing production.
That’s history, though. How does he compare to the current crop of freshman wide receivers? I took a look at Pro Football Focus’ current numbers to find out.
Luther Burden rankings among true freshmen WR this year (courtesy of PFF):
- 5th in targets
- 9th in receptions
- 4th in passing down snaps
- 52nd in yards per route run
- Most drops (3)
- 2nd most congested targets (6)
- 3rd worst passer rating when targeted (min. 10 targets)
So, a mixed bags. Burden is getting the snaps, he’s getting the targets, but the production has yet to follow. Some of that is on the coaches for not finding more creative ways to get him easy touches in space. Some of that is on the quarterback for not making the most of their opportunities. And some of it is on us for expecting Burden to dominate the next level in a way that probably wasn’t fair.