COLUMBIA, Mo. — J.D. McKissic was beginning to look and feel like a forgotten man. But it was only a matter of time before McKissic had his name called.
After a relatively quiet first four weeks, the former freshman All-American McKissic had his most productive game of the season in Arkansas State’s 41-19 loss on Saturday night at Missouri.
McKissic set an ASU single-game record with 15 receptions to more than double his number of catches through the first four games. After slipping into a seldom-used role, McKissic was one of the primary options in Arkansas State’s game plan for the Tigers.
New ASU coach Bryan Harsin said he and his staff had underused McKissic the first part of the season and they had to find a way to get him the football.
“We’ve been saying it and this game presented him the opportunity and I guess we found more ways to get him the football, and he made plays,” Harsin said. “That’s the bottom line. We’ve got to try to do that.”
After setting a school record for most catches in a season last fall, McKissic was considered one of Arkansas State’s most talented wide receivers and offensive weapons coming into this year.
But the 2013 season hadn’t been nearly as fruitful for the speedy 5-foot-10 sophomore from Phenix City, Ala. He went into Saturday’s game in Columbia, Mo., with just 10 catches for 99 yards and only one TD through the first four games.
Finally, the ball came his way, and McKissic made the most of his many opportunities. He was just happy to have his role expanded in ASU’s attack.
“It felt real good to be a part of the game plan,” McKissic said afterward. “It felt great.”
McKissic set a school record for receptions in a season with 103 for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns last year. Twice he recorded the third-most catches ever in a single game for ASU with 12 against Louisiana-Monroe and Troy.
But McKissic hadn’t been the featured receiver in Arkansas State’s offense most of this year. He also had faced defenses designed to limit his big-play potential with extra attention, including double coverage, often devoted to him.
Last week at Memphis, he caught a season-high five passes for 23 yards and scored on an explosive 15-yard TD catch in which he jumped the final five yards into the end zone.
It was that athleticism on the touchdown against Memphis that helped convince Harsin that McKissic needed to get the football more.
“J.D. played exceptional tonight, I thought, and he did everything he could with the opportunities we gave him,” Harsin added after the Missouri game. “The reality of it was, we didn’t have a whole lot of time to sit back there and throw the ball down the field to him, so we had to throw the short ones and get the ball in his hands and just let him create those yards on his own, and he really did that.”
McKissic ended the night with 15 catches for 117 yards, including a long reception of 28 yards. But just catching the football wasn’t the only way he contributed.
McKissic was also Arkansas State’s leading rusher with four carries for 36 yards, including a 32-yard gain on one carry. He also had a kickoff return of 27 yards and a punt return that lost a yard.
ASU quarterback Adam Kennedy, who tied a school record by completing 37 passes against Missouri, said the Red Wolves designed their game plan around McKissic and worked in some new looks to help him get open.
“We worked on it basically right after the Memphis game,” Kennedy said. “We realized we have to get him the ball. He’s so good. He was unbelievable tonight. We definitely put in a bunch of different packages to move him around just like we said we would. We stopped keeping him in the same spot that allowed teams to double him every game.”
Because of Missouri’s strength up front, Harsin wanted to utilize ASU’s quick passing game. The Tigers harassed Kennedy throughout the night, sacking him five times while forcing him to hurry a couple of passes and throw a couple away to avoid taking a sack.
That made McKissic a big part of the Red Wolves’ plans and what had been practiced throughout the week leading up to the game.
“We just worked on getting me the ball in a hurry, real quick,” McKissic said.
Arkansas State didn’t wait to tip its hand on how it planned to use McKissic, either.
In the first quarter alone McKissic had seven touches on offense and also a kickoff return. His first opportunity with the football came on ASU’s first possession and resulted in a 32-yard gain on a misdirection wide receiver reverse.
By halftime, McKissic had 10 receptions for 72 yards, 38 yards rushing and 137 all-purpose yards. His 3-yard reception early in the fourth quarter broke the record for most catches in a game set in back-to-back years by former receivers Josh Jarboe in 2012 and Dwayne Frampton in 2011.
McKissic was excited to break the receptions record.
“That’s big to put my name in the books with a record,” McKissic said. “But we still took an ‘L’ though.”
McKissic wasn’t the only ASU player to have a big night.
Senior Julian Jones had a career-best 10 catches for 136 yards and a touchdown, while Kennedy was 37-of-46 passing for 308 yards. Jones leads the Sun Belt Conference with 33 catches for 334 yards, an average of 6.6 receptions a game.
Harsin said opponents can expect to see McKissic and Jones find new ways to get the football moving forward.
“Julian had a big night, had some big, big plays for us — a huge touchdown catch,” Harsin said. “It was good to utilize both those guys. J.D. got more of the touches, but Julian had quite a few of the big plays in that game.”