COLUMBIA, Mo. - With less than 11 minutes remaining in Missouri's win against Tennessee last Saturday, wide receiver Jimmie Hunt out-jumped a defender to snatch a deep Maty Mauk pass before turning to run the remaining 40 yards for a touchdown. The Volunteer defense wasn't the only thing he left behind him.
Five injuries, at least. Fifteen pounds. A crowded depth chart. A disappointing stretch of low production. Those are all behind Hunt now.
The senior receiver has had the two biggest games of his career, yardage-wise, in successive weeks. He set a career high with 85 yards in his five-catch performance Nov. 15 against Texas A&M, and he set a new one with 106 yards against Tennessee.
Better late than never.
"It's huge," Hunt said. "It's all about being able to finish."
In 2011, Hunt's on-field career got off to an auspicious start. After redshirting the 2010 as a freshman recovering from an early-season left ankle sprain, Hunt's first Missouri snag went for 54 yards and a touchdown against Western Kentucky. That catch, however, would be his last of the season. In 2012, Hunt only caught 10 more balls but made the most of them, averaging 18 yards per catch and scoring three touchdowns. He also ran back a kick for a touchdown.
Hunt hoped to build on his success in his junior year, but he struggled to lose the weight he gained while recovering from a spring shoulder surgery. He caught 22 balls in 2013, but the weight affected his play and he was stuck behind a log jam of receivers that included Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington.
Hunt dropped to 205 pounds for his senior year, and though a hamstring injury sidelined him during a preseason scrimmage, his new physique paid off early in the year. Hunt hauled in four touchdown passes in Missouri's first three games, becoming Mauk's favorite target when throwing on the run. The success was much-needed for a team coping with limited experience among its receiving corps.
But a infected bursa sac kept Hunt out of Missouri's win at South Carolina, and the 6-foot senior caught just five passes for 79 yards of the Tigers' next four games.
With the season coming to a close and Missouri nearing in on its second straight SEC East title, however, Hunt emerged in two crucial games on the road. His 73-yard touchdown reception against the Volunteers, his third career score at Neyland Stadium, might have been the difference in what resulted in an eight-point win for the Tigers.
"We needed it and he came in the clutch," fellow senior receiver Bud Sasser said. "Mr. Hunt is just pretty clutch. That's all I know. I'm glad to have him back out there and healthy and him rolling around like he is. He's a big-time playmaker."
Hunt, a Cahokia, Ill. native, picked the right time to become a key receiving threat.
"Our coaches preach it all year long, being able to finish in November," Hunt said. "Once you finish in November you'll be remembered, and that's something as seniors we take to heart. We grind out the early games, and then you've got midseason and now you're towards the end, and we're trying to make sure we stay focused and keep everybody else focused and grounded and know we've got to get our jobs done and continue to play."
Part of Hunt's recent success has been a result of him getting back to peak health, but another player's health has helped as well. Senior receiver Darius White was sidelined for much of Hunt's down period with two groin injuries. Having him back has cleared the field for Hunt.
"Us top three receivers out there, we open things up for each other and that takes us a long way as an offense," Hunt said. "It gives the defense multiple threats that they've got to care for and think about when they're game planning and ultimately open the run (game) up a lot. That also helps us out."
Hunt's participation has been invaluable for an offense that has struggled this year. Out of the slot position, he gives Mauk a receiving threat across the middle of the field and underneath safeties. Those types of throws were missing for Mauk, who struggled early in conference play when the Tigers' long-ball-or-bust approach didn't translate against SEC defenses. With all three senior receivers healthy, Missouri has averaged almost 90 more offensive yards per conference game.
With just one regular season game left for those seniors, Hunt is cognizant of the dwindling number of snaps remaining for him to prove he can play at the next level.
"That thought is always in the back of your mind," he said. "You always want to get to the next level. That's what we play the game for. I ain't saying that I'm going to be a top receiver in the NFL. I ain't saying that I'm not, but I'm going to work hard and do whatever I can to get to the next level."
He can start by reducing his number of dropped passes. Missouri had a handful in the Tennessee win, and Hunt said those plays have lingered more than the thought of his long touchdown catch.
"That's what really sticks in the back of my mind," Hunt said. "How can I make that better and make those catches?"
He will try to answer that question and continue his strong end-of-season run on Faurot Field today against Arkansas.
Lucky for Hunt, he has experience putting things behind him.