AUBURN, Ala. — When Gus Malzahn left Arkansas State for Auburn last December, J.D. McKissic wasn’t hurt.
He wasn’t disappointed or angry, either. Instead, he understood Malzahn was just doing what was best for him. It was far from a selfish move, McKissic said.
It’s just the way college football operates in the 21st century.
“It’s hard to have to learn another offense again and trying to start to learn things about your position, but it’s a business,” the redshirt sophomore receiver said. “You’ve got to be able to move on.”
Malzahn’s exit wasn’t even the first coaching change McKissic had dealt with in his two years in Jonesboro, Ark., up to that point. Mirroring what Malzahn would do just one year later, Hugh Freeze coached the Red Wolves to a Sun Belt Conference title in 2011 before accepting the same position at Ole Miss.
During his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Malzahn said he still keeps in touch with “a few” of Red Wolves. McKissic isn’t one of them. He couldn’t recall speaking with Malzahn since took over the Tigers’ program. It was the same story with Freeze.
It’s not as if McKissic was different. He said he doesn’t keep up with how the Rebels or Tigers are doing unless he comes across them by accident.
“If (I’m) watching TV and they’re on, I’ll watch the game,” he said.
A lot of eyes will be trained on McKissic this Saturday — and rightly so. What he did last season proved he wasn’t only one of the top receivers in the Sun Belt, but among the best in the country. He was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year after hauling in 103 receptions for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns. His receptions were the most of any freshman receiver in the nation.
Without the benefit of a redshirt, however, McKissic believed last season’s success wouldn’t have happened. When he first set foot on campus, he was overwhelmed making the transition from high school to college.
“I talked to the coaches, and they had tried to get me to learn the offense,” he said, “but there were just too many signals and I just couldn’t soak it all in. So I took a redshirt.”
Working with the scout team and getting mental reps — as well as being able to watch the Red Wolves’ more experienced receivers from the sidelines – were the most important factors that aided his stellar 2012 season.
Given his robust receiving numbers, many would be surprised to learn he wasn’t offered by any major Division I school. The Phenix City native isn’t undersized — he stands 5-foot-11 and weighs 193 pounds. He was an all-purpose threat at Central High School, catching 25 passes for 571 yards and six touchdowns, rushing for 411 yards and returning 22 kicks for another 486 yards.
Why the lack of interest?
“I don’t know,” McKissic said. “It might have been an exposure thing. Maybe I wasn’t getting as much as I should have got in high school. I guess (bigger schools) just didn’t want to take a chance on me.”
Growing up a fan of the Troy Trojans since his older brother Bryant played there, McKissic was crestfallen the Trojans — as well as other Division I programs in bigger conferences — never gave him a look. He won’t be an afterthought this weekend, though, since Malzahn is obviously well-aware of his abilities.
“J.D.'s a phenomenal player,” Malzahn said. “He's great with the ball in his hands. He's a receiver who has running back skills. A big-time playmaker.”
As long as the Red Wolves keep getting him the ball, they won’t have to worry about McKissic continuing to make explosive plays. Yes, every catch he makes helps the team. But it also satisfies McKissic’s inner drive, one of showing top-level teams what they missed out on.
Those schools will have to settle for watching him from afar.
“I’m the type of guy that likes to come from the bottom and make it to the top,” he said. “So that motivated me a lot, just thinking about why these teams didn’t take a chance on me. It’s a loss for them, but I’m glad to be here at Arkansas State.”