COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Production did not live up to the hype last fall for Dorial Green-Beckham, the teenage sensation already known better by his three initials before arriving at Missouri.
This year, the Tigers are hoping, will be DGB’s true coming-out party.
Freshman year was a mixed bag for the player rated the No. 1 prospect in the nation by several services. Immediately plugged into the mix rather than taking a redshirt year, he was not the difference-maker that Tigers needed on a 5-7 team.
Missouri anticipates a player in the mold of Julio Jones and A.J. Green — long, lean, rugged speedsters who hit the ground running in the SEC and became top 10 NFL draft picks and pro stars after three years in college.
But Green-Beckham wasn’t all that last year. He made just one start in the fall, finished fourth on the team with 28 receptions and got limited playing time.
“The only goal that I’ve got,” Green-Beckham said, “is to be the best player I can be and push myself, no matter what.”
In 2008, Jones and Green made their college debuts, and both were showered with national awards for what they did. Jones was AP freshman of the year at Georgia with 58 catches for 924 yards and four touchdowns with three 100-yard games. Green was the SEC coaches’ freshman of the year after making 11 starts and setting school freshman records with 56 receptions and 963 yards.
The big-play chops Green-Beckham flashed this spring has coaches convinced he’s over growing pains and ready for the fast track.
Coach Gary Pinkel saw maturity from a player who’s had the total package for a while now.
“He’s a different guy,” Pinkel said. “He catches the ball so well, he can turn an average play into a big play, and I think we’re starting to see really how good he can be.”
The 6-6, 220-pound Green-Beckham also drew rave comparisons to Calvin Johnson and Andre Johnson coming out of Hillcrest High School in Springfield, Mo. Missouri first offered him a scholarship at age 15, and DGB rewarded the school’s doggedness and stayed in-state, declining offers from Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma.
Since arriving, there’s been no star treatment. Green-Beckham was behind senior starter Marcus Lucas for the spring game.
But he’s not the only Top 10 recruit who struggled last year.
Florida redshirted defensive tackle Mario Edwards, ranked No. 1 overall by ESPN, Alabama safety Landon Collins made no starts, and the highlight game for Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman was three tackles with one for a loss against Wake Forest. Notre Dame’s Davonte Neal managed one catch for a 5-yard loss.
On the top end, Georgia running back Keith Marshall had 759 yards rushing with eight TDs and was SEC offensive newcomer of the year, Texas running back Johnathan Gray had 701 yards rushing and three TDs, and Florida offensive tackle D.J. Humphries made three starts and was all-SEC freshman.
DGB did not put up huge numbers in the annual Black and Gold game last month, with three catches for 49 yards. But his 35-yard catch and run over the middle was among the highlights, and he was much more at ease talking to reporters, too.
“Just a guy feeling like he knows what he’s doing,” new offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “He’s getting more comfortable with executing his assignments, and he’s getting the ball, he’s getting open and making plays.
“And I think all those things lend to your personality coming out, feeling more comfortable in your skin.”
The spring game offered plenty of teaching points, too. Henson said Green-Beckham’s route could have been run “a lot better” on a pass that was intercepted and added DGB must learn to combine body control and ability consistently.
“He’s got great talent,” Henson said. “He’s got to learn to use it every snap, every down, every time. He does that, he’s going to have a chance to be a great player.”
Despite the limited looks last year, Green-Beckham had a team-leading five touchdown catches and a 14.1-yard average hinted at the blend of elusiveness. The numbers paled in comparison to prodigious production in high school, when he set a national prep record of 6,353 yards receiving and 75 touchdowns and racked up 119 catches and 24 touchdowns his senior year.
Missouri gave most improved awards at every position, many of them to under-the-radar players who climbed a notch or two on the depth chart. Though very much on the radar, DGB was the pick as most improved wide receiver.
“Last year took a lot of pressure off me, going out there and learning quickly as the game went by,” Green-Beckham said. “As spring ball went by, I’ve learned and become that player that everybody wanted me to be.
“My confidence level is really high right now.”
He’s a fan of new offense, expected to be somewhat simplified after season-long struggles last year with wide receivers lining up on the same side. Under Henson, promoted after four seasons as co-offensive line coach, it’s also likely there’ll be faster play-calling, far fewer empty backfields and not as many designed quarterback runs.
“I mean, it was really good,” Green-Beckham said. “There’s a lot of positive things that he has up his sleeve that we’re going to use this upcoming season.”
The variable Green-Beckham can’t control is who’s throwing to him. Senior James Franklin is coming off a disappointing, injury-plagued junior year and will have to outplay challengers Maty Mauk and Corbin Berkstresser in August to keep his starting job.
After grading all the practices and scrimmages and the spring game, Henson said the coaching staff has “an opinion in our minds” about the QB competition.
“I like the variety of all of them,” Green-Beckham said. “I mean, they’ve all got good arms and they’re all going to make positive things happen when they step on the field.”
That’s got to be DGB’s aim, too. Between now and September, Missouri wants the phenom to really step up.
“He can be a lot better than what we’re seeing right now,” Pinkel said. “You take all summer, and then all August. We should see a considerably different guy than we saw a year ago.”