The Hubert Anyiam feel-good story took what Cowboys coach Mike Gundy called a “heartbreaking” turn Saturday at Missouri.
Anyiam, back and better than ever after a series of career-containing injuries, was lost again, probably for the balance of the season with a broken bone in his left foot.
It's a personal blow for Anyiam, a senior whose joy in what has been a special individual and team season has been undeniable during recent interviews and conversations. Just three weeks ago, Anyiam sat cheerfully following Oklahoma State's rout of Kansas, reveling in his big day and big role in OSU's explosive offense, producing five catches for 85 yards and two touchdowns against the Jayhawks.
“I've never had so much fun,” he said.
Saturday at Mizzou, he struck for a 31-yard, first-quarter catch and was done; is done.
It's a significant blow for the Cowboys, who lose not only their third-leading receiver, but a big-bodied deep threat to line up opposite Justin Blackmon, as well as a physical edge and downfield blocker.
Don't underestimate Anyiam's value on all fronts. He will be missed.
Still, the Cowboys must move on.
“Well, we've got other good players,” said OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken, not at all trying to be insensitive. “No one really cares (that you're short-handed). The fans don't care, the school doesn't care, the coaches can't care and the defense doesn't care. You've got to go play.
“That's what a good team does. You have to have the other guy step up and go play.”
So it's plug-and-play at receiver.
The question is, who to plug?
Isaiah Anderson gets the first look, as Anyiam's former backup and owning the best knowledge of the position. Stepping in Saturday, Anderson had a career-best five catches for 34 yards.
One of the fastest Cowboys, Anderson has the speed OSU coaches desire to stretch secondaries across from Blackmon. At 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, he's not the physical presence that Anyiam is. And he needs to do a better job securing the ball to earn the full trust of quarterback Brandon Weeden.
Colton Chelf is a swing man at receiver who knows every position and will surely see his playing time increase.
Then there's Michael Harrison.
And Harrison is the most intriguing possibility, although he'd have to learn the intricacies of another position, because coaches believe he'll eventually be great.
“Mike's got extreme upside,” said receivers coach Doug Meacham. “His talent and skill sets are really good. He's really strong. He's got great ball skills. He'll body up on you, kind of the same stuff as Blackmon.”
Weeden has even suggested Harrison has a Blackmon-style breakout in him.
We've seen Harrison's superb skills intermittently, including Saturday, when he struck for 71 yards on three catches, including a 27-yard touchdown.
So what's the holdup? First, there's the position change away from being Blackmon's backup, which isn't as easy as it may sound. And there's a need for Harrison to fully focus on launching his breakout.
“He hasn't played a lot football,” Meacham said. “He redshirted and got hurt, broke his foot. Last year he played some. He's just now really playing in college.
“He's just still kind of learning.”
But, oh, that talent, packed in a 6-1, 211-pound body.
“Next year, he'll be the guy,” Meacham said. “Maybe next week. I don't know.”
Another player sure to get a bump in action, albeit in the slot, is freshman Josh Stewart, a star of the preseason who continues to make strides in his transition to college.
“A very explosive guy,” Meacham said. “And he's tough. Man, he's tough.”
As much as the Cowboys hate it for Anyiam, opportunity has arrived.
Now, who seizes it?
The good news: because the Pokes throw so much, the number of guys getting reps in practice stretches three deep at every receiver position. So there won't be any rushing to get someone ready.
“A lot of times, when you're the backup, you develop a little later because you're the backup,” Meacham said. “When you know you're the guy, it kind of speeds up the process. It's human nature.”