JONESBORO — First-year Arkansas State football coach Bryan Harsin has undoubtedly encountered countless introductions since taking over the Red Wolves last December. But some introductions stand out above the rest, and Harsin distinctly remembers the day J.D. McKissic walked up to introduce himself.
“He’s a freshman All-American, and he introduced himself that way to me when I first met him,” Harsin recalled. “I said ‘That’s fantastic, you need to be a sophomore All-American, you know?’”
That exchange was fewer than three dozen words, but it highlights a key component to the Red Wolves upcoming season: McKissic proved he’s capable of being one of the better receivers in the country in 2012. Now he needs to do it again, with a new quarterback and game plans designed to stop him.
“He’s going to have to do more than he did last year,” Harsin said. “Everybody knows who he is now. There’s no surprises; they know who J.D. McKissic is.”
A year ago very few people around college football knew of him, and there was nothing overly special about J.D. McKissic’s first collegiate reception.
It was about eight minutes into the 2012 season opener at Oregon with his team trailing 22-0. A cauldron of noise swirled inside Autzen Stadium as senior quarterback Ryan Aplin dropped back and found McKissic for an 8-yard gain and a first down.
Virtually none of the 56,144 in attendance that day would remember such an innocuous play, but for McKissic it was the beginning of a remarkable season — one even he admits he never expected. Over the next four months, the redshirt freshman never stopped catching passes. In his final five games alone, he caught 53 passes.
By the time he hauled in his 11th ball in the 17-13 GoDaddy.com Bowl victory over Kent State — an 11-yard snag for a first down with about five minutes to play — McKissic had accumulated a school-record 103 receptions for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns.
“I didn’t expect that at all (to catch 100 passes),” McKissic said. I never really thought about it. I just know at the end of every game, I was trying to get (the ball) like 10-12 times. I kind of knew it was going to come after that.”
After the receptions finally stopped, McKissic spent the offseason collecting accolades. He was named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year and second team All-Sun Belt. He finished seventh in the country in receptions — tops among all freshmen — and caught eight passes or more in eight of his team’s 13 games. The Football Writers Association of American named him to the Freshman All-American Team.
It was a heck of a first impression, but sustaining that level of success is a difficult task under perfect conditions. McKissic’s situation is far from ideal. He’ll try to do it while learning a new system under a new coaching staff with a new quarterback throwing him the football.
“I’ve just got to keep working hard, staying after practice and doing more,” McKissic said. “A lot of teams are gonna double up on me. I just need to focus and wait for the big play.”
Not that everything is stacked against him. The sophomore from Phenix City, Ala., now has a year of on-field experience — and success — to help him evolve.
“It should’t be so hard (to play well). I know the game now,” McKissic said. “I know how fast the game goes. On the field it’s just a different feeling now.”
He also has a coaching staff that recognizes his talent.
“He’s a young guy and I think all of that was thrust upon him,” said ASU receivers coach Anthony Tucker. “He probably didn’t expect that much (success). He’s another young guy with a ton of potential. Before he’s done here he has an opportunity to have a great career.
“He’s a great player,” Tucker later added. “If you understand what you’re doing as coaches, then you understand it’s about putting the ball in the guys’ hands that are going to help you be successful. I think that they did a good job of getting the ball in their playmakers’ hands (last year). They had a great quarterback and great receivers.”
But McKissic is far from a finished product. The wide receiver position requires the athleticism and skills that he clearly possesses, but it also requires a level of precision that McKissic is still learning.
“The receiver’s position is really about continuing to work at your craft,” Tucker said. “It is a craft out there. You’re out there on that island and there are so many little things you can learn about the position that you can learn to make (yourself) better.
“You don’t want to be a one-dimensional wide receiver. You don’t want to be a guy who just catches bubbles or you don’t want to be a guy that you can only send deep. You want to be a guy who is good at a lot of different things. Those are the things that J.D. as a young player is really working on. … He’s trying to diversify his skill set.”
While Harsin’s spread offense will offer playing time for a wide range of receivers, the level of depth at the position is impressive. McKissic will compete for playing time with players like Julian Jones, who averaged 30 yards a catch last season, and redshirt senior Allen Muse, who returns after being dismissed from the team early last season. The 6-4 Muse has 65 career receptions for the Red Wolves.
Redshirt sophomore Tres Houston (6-2, 183) figures to have a role after an excellent freshmen season at Northeast Community College (45 receptions, 680 yards, 8 touchdowns) as does senior Carlos McCants (9 receptions, 187 yards last year) and R.J. Fleming (9, 113).
“All those guys, whatever they did last year, has got to be enhanced even more,” Harsin said. “That’s all started through spring, through summer training and will continue into fall camp.”
Harsin also brought in three freshmen with his first recruiting class, and if anybody knows the impact a freshman can have, it’s McKissic.
“There’s going to be a lot of competition,” Tucker said. “It’s kind of up to those guys to show us what they’re good at.”
While Tucker said it’s too early to name starters, if McKissic doesn’t start and play a ton of snaps in 2013, it would be shocking. After all, he sits eighth on the career reception list at ASU after just 13 career games — just 60 catches behind Dwayne Frampton’s career reception mark.
But McKissic isn’t taking anything for granted. In fact he expects to catch fewer balls than he did a year ago and will focus on doing more with the balls that come his way. The ultimate goal is a team goal anyway — a third consecutive Sun Belt title.
“Right now we’re focused on another ring,” McKissic said. “We’re just trying to take it game by game and just win.”
And if he’s named “a sophomore All-American” in the process, so be it.