COLUMBIA, Mo. — Wide receiver Bud Sasser has put together a collection of memorable plays in his Missouri football career.
Against Vanderbilt in 2012, Sasser caught an 85-yard touchdown pass and also recovered a fumble on a teammate’s reception and advanced it 16 yards. Sasser was credited for the yardage but not the catch, leaving him with a stat line that looked more like a scorekeeper’s typo — one catch for 101 yards.
Last year at Georgia, Sasser threw his first and only college pass — and it might have been Mizzou’s biggest play of the season. Two snaps after quarterback James Franklin and his injured shoulder left the game for good, Sasser caught a backward pass from Maty Mauk, then rainbowed a 40-yard touchdown to fellow wideout L’Damian Washington.
On Saturday, he finished with a career-best 121 yards on five catches at Toledo, but it was his first-quarter forced fumble that had coaches and teammates buzzing.
“Every day our defense tries to strip the ball,” Missouri receivers coach Pat Washington said. “He’s a smart football player, and he saw an opportunity to do exactly what’s been happening to him every day in practice. It was huge for us.”
Trailing Missouri 14-7 late in the first quarter, Toledo appeared ready to set up in MU territory when safety Jordan Haden intercepted Mauk and galloped 23 yards toward the end zone — until Sasser arrived and chopped the ball out of Haden’s hand from behind. Fellow wideout Jimmie Hunt fell on the loose ball and saved Missouri’s defense from having to defend a short field.
As he watched the play, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel thought of Iowa’s game-winning interception return in the 2010 Insight Bowl, when Micah Hyde picked off Blaine Gabbert in the game’s final minutes and raced 72 yards to the end zone with Mizzou players diving at his heels.
Sasser, though, made the instinctive touchdown-saving play.
“As an offensive player you’re not really coached to strip the ball,” Sasser said, “but we have to deal with it on our team all through practice, because that’s what our defense is taught, to get the ball out. As soon as I saw the ball get picked off, that’s the first thing that came to my mind.”
Which raises the question: What’s next on Sasser’s football bucket list? Intercept a pass on defense? Return a punt for a touchdown? Kick a field goal?
“Whatever comes my way,” he said, “I try to handle it like I’ve done it a million times before.”
For now, as No. 20 Missouri (2-0) prepares to host Central Florida (0-1) on Saturday, the 6-3 senior co-captain is mastering his position as an outside receiver. A strained knee slowed him some in Mizzou’s opener against South Dakota State, but through two games he has seven catches for a team-best 158 yards and two touchdowns.
When Dorial Green-Beckham was kicked off the team in April, Missouri’s first adjustment was moving Sasser from inside receiver to Green-Beckham’s spot on the outside, usually on the far left side of the formation. At the X-receiver position, Sasser has used his precise route running and what Washington described as deceptive speed to give Mauk a reliable target on the outside.
“He’s been wanting to play [on the outside] forever,” Washington said. “When we made that move he was like, ‘You finally got smart.’ But he’s able to make that transition because he’s a smart player and he can read coverages.”
“The main thing that I love about Bud is that he’s consistent,” Mauk said. “His routes, they’re not always different. They’re always the same. I know where he’s going to be all the time.”
As soon as Green-Beckham became a former Tiger in April, Missouri’s wide receivers became the team’s least proven position group, as the Tigers also had to replace L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, who combined with Green-Beckham to account for 70 percent of last year’s receiving yardage. But Sasser, Hunt and fellow senior Darius White spent the offseason insisting they’d be more than capable in expanded roles.
So far, they’ve lived up to their own confidence. Sasser’s yards per catch average (22.6) ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference, one spot ahead of White (21.7). All three seniors have at least two touchdown catches.
“They approached it from the spring to the summer to the fall knowing that it was going to be a difficult task to not only repeat what the kids did last year but what the team did last year.” Pat Washington said. “They’re up for the challenge.”
— Mizzou Football (@MizzouFootball) September 6, 2014
There’s one area of Missouri’s retooled receiver corp. that Pinkel wants to fix: The young backups, notably Lawrence Lee, Nate Brown and J’Mon Moore, have played sparingly and have yet to catch a pass. That needs to change, Pinkel said. Not only does the position require better depth for this season, but the Tigers need some seasoned receivers in 2015.
“You get into game situations and it gets critical at times and you want your guys with the most experience out there,” Washington said. “But somewhere down the road we have to let the young fellas go and sit back and see what happens.”
For now, they’ll benefit from watching their senior co-captain. You never know what he’ll try next.