Missouri WR Alexander could be college football's latest hidden gem
Mostly unknown Danario Alexander put on a show in Missouri's win over K-State
Injured most of his career, Alexander has 81 catches for 11 TDs this season
College football has a way of revealing star players when you least expect it
MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Here's the great thing about just showing up at a fairly random college football game: You just might end up seeing one of the best players in the country ... even if you have never heard of him before.
For instance: A few years ago, I found myself at an utterly nondescript South Carolina-Louisiana Tech football game, and the Louisiana Tech sports information director told me to watch his team's left tackle. "You won't see anyone in the country like him." I watched that left tackle in awe -- something I never thought I would or could say about a left tackle. That was Willie Roaf, who remains the best left tackle I ever saw play, and who will someday be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
And the funny thing is that even with all the hype that surrounds college football these days -- even if we start Heisman Watches in July and begin following the most talented football recruits in their sophomore year of high school -- these sort of surprises can still happen. Saturday, I went to watch Kansas State play Missouri in a semi-meaningful Big 12 North game -- you know, if you believe the blundering Big 12 North can have semi-meaningful games.
I went mostly to write something about how Kansas State coach Bill Snyder, at age 70, is working miracles again. The Wildcats came into this year with less talent than just about any other team in the Big 12 -- they lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and almost lost to UMass -- yet they came into Sunday leading the Big 12 North. Amazing. However, this did not turn out to be the best day to write about that. The less talent problem took center stage. The Wildcats turned the ball over as they were about to go in for an early touchdown, the Tigers offense moved the ball at will, and Missouri pounded Kansas State 38-12.
But here was something surprising: Missouri (in the midst of what has been considered a disappointing year) might have the best wide receiver in America. His name is Danario Alexander. You can certainly be forgiven if the name doesn't ring any bells.
To introduce him: Alexander is 6-foot-5, and he runs a 4.5 40-yard dash when no one is chasing him (he seems to go quite a big faster when they are chasing him). He was extremely talented -- in 2007 he actually beat out Jeremy Maclin for a starting receivers' job, the same Jeremy Maclin (of course) who would go on to become a two-time All-American receiver and a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. But then he got hurt.
This has been the trouble with Alexander: Injuries. He has had three knee surgeries and a wrist surgery in his bittersweet career at Missouri. Well, at least the career is bittersweet now. Before this year, it was all bitterness.
This year, though, he has been a phenomenon. He has caught 81 passes for 1,238 yards and 11 touchdowns -- all figures likely to be ranked Top 5 in America this week. His knee only in the last month has felt something close to 100 percent. And in his last five games, he has caught 46 passes for 791 yards and seven touchdowns.
Saturday, he put on one of the greatest one-man receivers shows I have ever seen in college football. It wasn't just the numbers, though the numbers were plenty good -- 10 catches, 200 yards, three touchdowns.
No, it was the show. In the second quarter, with the scored tied 3-3, Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert lofted a high pass -- it looked almost like a Hail Mary pass -- in the direction of Alexander, who leaped up, hip-checked the Kansas State safety in mid-air, took the ball away, landed on his feet and ran in for a 54-yard touchdown. It was Randy Moss stuff.
Then there was the pass Alexander caught over the middle. He ran a couple of steps, then suddenly stopped, pivoted (holding himself up with his hand), ran the opposite direction to get some extra yards. It was Terrell Owens stuff.
Later, he caught a 12-yard pass over the middle, eluded the safety and hit max-speed. At least three Kansas State players had clear angles on him -- but none caught him. He went 80 yards for the touchdown, the fourth time this season he has caught a touchdown pass longer than 70 yards. That's Larry Fitzgerald stuff, and it's no coincidence. Fitzgerald is one of Alexander's heroes.
"He's already fast," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says. "But he plays faster than he is."
Later still -- with Missouri in need of a first down to put the game away -- Alexander caught a pass and pushed forward. His helmet was knocked off, but he kept pushing forward and got the first down. That's the stuff of Mike Ditka.
"I just told Coach I wanted the ball," Alexander would say.
It was breathtaking, really. It's just not that often that you see a player show his skills from every angle. But Alexander showed speed, leaping ability, maneuverability, hands, power, will -- all in one game.
Much of Alexander's success this year has been obscured because Missouri has tended to lose despite his amazing performances. The Tigers lost when he went for 180 yards receiving and a touchdown against Oklahoma State. The Tigers lost when he caught 13 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown against Baylor last week.
This time, though, he made sure Missouri won, and he called it "the best feeling ever." I will admit: I had not spent much time thinking about Danario Alexander before Saturday. I have not seen his name mentioned for the Heisman, of course. He is not one of the 10 receivers listed as a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award, which is supposed to go to the best receiver in college football. I have looked at a few NFL Draft previews -- which, of course, is now a year-round business too -- and I have not seen anyone list him as a first-day draft pick.
Now, hey, I'm no scout. I don't know if Alexander will be a successful NFL receiver. And I have not traveled the country comparing wide receivers. But I can tell you that on Saturday, in a game that didn't have much else going for it, Danario Alexander looked about as good as any college receiver I've seen. Yes, that's one of the beautiful things about college football. You never know when you will get blindsided by brilliance.
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