Columbia, Mo. This time last year, Jeremy Maclin was a backup wide receiver at Missouri. Highly touted, definitely, but still a red-shirt freshman coming off major knee surgery.
That was about the last time the Tigers' do-it-all threat wasn't a major headache for defensive coordinators. Coming off an All-American season in which he broke the NCAA single-season freshman record for all-purpose yards, Maclin figures to be a marked man in No. 6 Missouri's opener tonight against No. 20 Illinois in St. Louis.
"Jeremy will see a lot of things and it'll be up to us to be creative," coach Gary Pinkel said.
Having Missouri's first-ever Heisman Trophy finalist in the backfield can't hurt. Quarterback Chase Daniel is the triggerman for an offense that averaged 40 points and 490 yards last year, both among the top 10 in the nation.
Daniel is such the savvy veteran directing the Tigers' no-huddle, spread offense that Pinkel said he could be a great coach someday. The staff welcomes suggestions from the senior who set school records with 4,306 yards passing and 33 touchdowns a year ago.
"My wife, she's finally starting to think we're going to turn the corner because they're starting to sound like me," Pinkel said. "Everybody's singing the same song. There's no question, we like his input."
Together, Daniel and Maclin are the two-headed point-producing monster that has fueled Missouri's rise to prominence after decades of mediocrity. The Tigers' No. 4 ranking at the end of last season was the best in school history and their No. 6 preseason ranking is also a high-water mark.
"Missouri has a quarterback that's as good as anybody," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "They've got a receiver-kick returner that every time he touches the ball can score, and they've got 11 or 12 guys returning on defense. So it will be a great, great challenge."
Some things, you just can't defense. Maclin's response to the extra attention he's getting: go ahead and double-team me. He's been facing this challenge since soon after his breakout debut against Illinois last year when he totaled 227 yards with a punt return for a touchdown and a 25-yard reception for a second score in a 40-34 victory.
He's the blur knifing through the defense, while the other 21 players on the field seem to be moving in slow motion. He had 275 yards and two touchdowns against Western Michigan, 238 yards and two touchdowns against Illinois State.
"I think every team tried to put a little something different," Maclin said. "You've just got to work around it."
Easy wins you say? Kansas State surrendered 360 yards and three scores to Maclin, Texas A&M 267 and two touchdowns, Oklahoma 189 yards and two touchdowns. The only teams to really take him out of the game were Texas Tech and Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, both equally determined to make Missouri beat them with the run.
Maclin had 66 and 63 yards in those games, and Missouri walloped Tech 41-10 and Arkansas 38-7. While the Red Raiders and Razorbacks were watching Maclin and worrying about Daniel, the Tigers ran all over them.
"They tried to stop our whole passing game, but they gave up 300 yards on the ground," Maclin said. "You can do that if you want to, but we'll hurt you in a different kind of way."
Daniel, fourth in the Heisman balloting last year and the Big 12 preseason offensive player of the year, knows how to find you. He had eight 300-yard passing games last year, including 361 yards and three touchdowns against Kansas to lead Missouri to its first Big 12 North title last year.
He topped 400 yards passing twice, against Nebraska and Colorado.
After helping Missouri earn its first Jan. 1 bowl berth since 1966, Daniel wants more. The coaching staff has made it easy for him to not think too far ahead.
"We have expectations internally that no one knows," he said. "We know what we're capable of, and we just have to go out and do it."