COLUMBIA - The Missouri football team handled Toledo fairly easily on Saturday, winning 49-24. But whenever the Rockets threatened to make a game of it, Bud Sasser was there to make sure they didn't.
As a team co-captain and veteran with the most starts among Missouri receivers, Sasser is taking on new responsibilities his senior year.
Saturday, the Rockets had a chance to take over deep in Missouri territory after a Maty Mauk interception, but Sasser tracked down Jordan Haden to strip the ball and regain possesion for the Tigers.
"He stripped him from behind, and a lot of receivers can't do that, but after I saw who did it, Bud, that's the type of guy you expect that from," defensive end Markus Golden said.
In the third quarter, when Kareem Hunt scored his third touchdown of the day to bring Toledo within two scores, Sasser answered with receptions of 47 and 25 yards for a score on the next drive to put the game out of reach.
"He's a very good athlete," coach Gary Pinkel said of Sasser. "He's very explosive. He's got great hands. He is a great competitor."
The senior co-captain finished the day with five catches for 121 yards, both career highs. They won't be the last marks Sasser surpasses this season. After playing a limited role his first three years, the Denton, Texas native entered this season with 608 career receiving yards. He's already more than a fourth of the way to surpassing that with 158 yards in two games.
He's also matched his career total for touchdowns with two. His first came in another big moment. Though his timing wasn't as crucial as kick returner Marcus Murphy's, Sasser's 29-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter put a fork in South Dakota State.
"He's developed as a route runner over time," offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. "I think he's getting better and better, running routes, getting open and beating guys individually one-on-one."
This marks Sasser's first season at outside receiver for Missouri. After playing mostly outside in high school, he had to learn how to operate from the inside his first few years as a Tiger.
"I like the challenge," he said. "Even when just learning the plays and learning concepts of routes and stuff like that in our offense, I pay attention to what everybody has to do, and I don't just like to watch just my position or just one position because why not get them all down?"
In addition to taking on a different position this year, Sasser has taken on a new role: vocal leader. As one of four captains on the team, he has come out of his shell in his senior season.
"If you kind of look last year, he was kind of a quiet guy, but then he kind of has his points where he's up there and lets people hear stuff," said Mauk, whose friendship with Sasser has grown over the last year. "But this year he's done a great job of kind of opening up and taking a leadership role that maybe he hasn't had before, and I expect him to do that, and he's got high expectations for me also. So we're going to push each other and make each other better and keep growing as teammates."
Henson said he has noticed the change.
"I think Bud has just grown up as a person," he said. "I think he's just doing more all the little detail things right. I think that just comes with getting a little older every year, a little more mature, but I think he's just really developed as a person. I think he's become a real practice player. He works hard in practice and getting all the little things right, and so I think that's helped him, obviously, translate that to the football field."
Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt all are stepping into increased roles at receiver this year with the loss of the trio of L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham that accounted for most of Missouri's production through the air in 2013. They are also all in their final year at Missouri.
"We're all special players, I think, and just kind of getting that really good chance of "You're that true starter, and you're going be getting the bulk of those plays,'" Sasser said. "This is the time to do what you're supposed to do since you've been here. This is the time to do what you've been wanting to do since you've been here. It's just a good feeling to have and just glad to be in that position, really."
So far the new trio has accounted for 412 yards in Missouri's first two games. But Sasser thinks there's more to come.
"I still think it's just a little preview of what we can do," he said. "...I think that we have a lot more in our tanks, and I can't wait for the day where we can just put it all out there."