COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — L'Damian Washington wanted to go home.
He had just redshirted his freshman season at Missouri and felt unproductive. He wanted to return to Shreveport, La., to be with his three brothers, the only family he had after losing his parents while growing up. Washington called then-receivers coach Andy Hill to let him know what he was thinking. That's when the receiver found the advocate he needed with the Tigers.
"He just told me I was going to be a hell of a player," Washington said. "I had his word that he was going to do everything to make me the best person I could be. Not just playing, but just the best person. And that he was in my corner; he had my best interests at heart. At that point, that was really what I needed to hear to come back."
Washington returned for the 2010 season, catching five passes for 35 yards. His next two years, he caught 45 passes for 807 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 32.3 yards per game.
Now in his fifth year with the Tigers, Washington has 29 receptions and 455 yards through six games. His 75.8 receiving yards per game ranks fifth in the Southeastern Conference while his seven touchdowns — including four in the past two weeks — rank tied for first.
Washington has led a cadre of Missouri receivers, helping the surprising No. 14 Tigers (6-0, 2-0) take early control of the SEC East division after knocking off Georgia 41-26 last week in Athens. At 6-foot-4, 205-pounds, Washington's lanky frame helped him haul in a 40-yard touchdown pass from fellow receiver Bud Sasser on a trick play named "Colt 45" that gave the team a 34-26 lead and some breathing room in the final 10 minutes.
"L'Damian was on his own" against a cornerback, Sasser said, "and I was like, 'OK, just give him a chance.'"
The Tigers have four experienced receivers who are all at least 6-4, including sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, who has 27 receptions for 399 yards and four touchdowns, and senior Marcus Lucas, who has 30 catches for 301 yards and a touchdown.
But it's Washington who players look up to the most.
"I kind of have a background to where my teammates will listen to me," he said. "They will listen to my input on things. It's great to be the leader of this team, and to be chosen as a captain. It's something that was rewarding. It just shows a lot about who I've become in life."
Leadership will be at a premium the next two weeks: The Tigers face No. 22 Florida (4-2, 3-1) and No. 11 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) and they will do it without injured senior quarterback James Franklin. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk will take the reins of an offense producing 276.3 passing yards per game and says his confidence emanates from the receivers around him.
"James, he's my guy," Washington said. "Just brothers, especially in Christ but just in general. To lose him, it's sad, especially for me. But Maty's going to do a great job. He's going to step right in."
As someone who self-described himself as "standoffish" when he arrived at Missouri, Washington now gushes about how the school has given him some of the best years of his life. He says he's grown up, and can talk to any of his teammates about life's happenings that previously could only be shared with his brothers at home.
"That's why someday, when he graduates and he quits playing football, whenever that is, he's going to be so successful at absolutely anything he does just because of who he is," coach Gary Pinkel said. "And I think that players certainly recognize that."