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Tigers receiver Alexander enjoys huge senior season
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Just last year, Jeremy Maclin set Missouri single-season records for receptions, yards and touchdowns in a scintillating sophomore season. Then he jumped to the NFL.
That puts Danario Alexander in good company. The senior who once started ahead of Maclin has rebounded from four operations, three on his left knee, and is close to erasing all of Maclin's marks.
With two regular-season games plus a likely bowl game left, Alexander is only 22 yards receiving, 21 receptions and two touchdowns away from the standards set by Maclin.
"For some reason, he always gets open," sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert said. "Danario is a big-time threat every time he gets the ball in his hands."
Maclin had 102 receptions for 1,260 yards and 13 touchdowns in 14 games in 2008. He's now thriving with the Philadelphia Eagles, who traded up two spots to take him with the 19th pick of the draft.
A couple of weeks ago, Maclin realized his records were in serious jeopardy.
"When he saw I was getting close, J-Mac called," Alexander said. "I told him, 'I'm coming for it,' and he encouraged me. He told me to go ahead and do my thing."
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Alexander isn't all the way back from the latest surgery less than a year ago. Entering the season, he was not considered first-round material given concerns over his ability to make precise cuts.
A lengthy highlight reel should answer any doubters. Alexander has a 40-inch-plus vertical leap, enabling him to elevate effortlessly over a Kansas State defender for one of his three scores last Saturday. He has catlike balance, landing on the run after his leaps or pivoting away from tacklers. He has enough speed, 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, to win footraces for touchdowns of 84 and 80 yards the last two weeks.
He's averaging a spectacular 44.7 yards on his 11 touchdowns.
"They always ask, 'Do you think he'll pass the physical?"' offensive coordinator Dave Yost said. "I always tell them there's no question.
"If you're going to test him, [you[']d say] I can't believe he's ever been hurt."
Alexander already has tied one school record with his big day at Kansas State, and he could match an NCAA record with a third straight 200-yard game Saturday in the home finale against Iowa State.
Unquestionably, he's the go-to player for the Tigers (6-4, 2-4 Big 12), rebuilding after the departures of Maclin and several other stars.
Alexander has more catches, yards and touchdowns as a senior than in his first three seasons combined, with 81 catches, 1,238 yards and the TD total all among the nation's best. Missouri runs a lot of five-wideout sets in a spread offense and Alexander often lines up wide, making it difficult for opponents to double-team him.
Tigers coach Gary Pinkel predicted a big year from Alexander on media day. Not this big. Not outdoing Maclin.
"J-Mac is the best player I've ever been around," Pinkel said. "He can change a game like that."
Then he paused to consider Alexander's breakout year, and the fact nobody heard much from him until now: "This guy is doing some pretty remarkable things. All-conference, All-America -- you would wish that he gets what he deserves."
Alexander started the 2007 opener ahead of Maclin as a sophomore, missed three games with the broken wrist and returned as a backup. He tore knee ligaments in the 2007 Big 12 championship game, then reinjured the knee the following summer and was less than 100 percent all of 2008.
All those hours in the training room are finally paying off.
"I've got everything back, I've kind of gotten trust in my knee or whatever," Alexander said. "There's nothing I can't do."
Yost sees Alexander's confidence growing weekly. The cuts are sharper, the stops and starts, too. Beyond the physical gifts, he's shown a gritty side, losing his helmet and not seeming to notice while bulldozing to a key first down last week.
So, how to stop him? Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon believes the only way is to jam Alexander at the line, and that's his strategy in practice.
"When I go against him I try to get my hands on him," Weatherspoon said. "But I see guys getting hands on him and he's still making plays. It's just amazing."