COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Outrunning defenses came easy for Missouri wide receiver and return specialist Jeremy Maclin. Saying goodbye was the hard part.
The two-time All-American announced his widely expected decision to turn pro Friday -- but not before breaking down in tears at the microphone before a crowd of reporters, grateful teammates and coaches.
"This decision hasn't been easy," Maclin said, adding that he didn't completely make up his mind until 10 minutes before the news conference. "As much as I love you guys ... I feel like I'm ready for the next level."
The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Maclin scored 17 touchdowns and caught 102 passes for Missouri this season while leading the nation in all-purpose yardage, helping elevate the Tigers to national prominence with a brief stint at No. 1 in the late-season rankings last year and consecutive appearances in the Big 12 Conference championship.
As a freshman, he scored 16 touchdowns and immediately electrified a program mired in mediocrity for years. Maclin sat out his first year in Columbia after injuring his knee during summer workouts, but announced his presence in the 2007 season opener with two touchdowns in a home victory against Illinois.
He totaled 2,833 all-purpose yards this season -- fifth-most in NCAA history -- and capped his career by igniting Missouri's comeback victory over Northwestern in the Alamo Bowl with a third-quarter punt return and then catching the game-winning touchdown pass in overtime.
Several mock drafts have rated Maclin as a first-round pick, some projecting him for the top 10.
"He's the elite of the elite," said assistant coach Cornell Ford, who helped recruit Maclin. "He set the bar for this program."
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he gave Maclin his blessing to move on to the NFL.
"That's the right thing for him, which is ultimately the right thing for our program," Pinkel said. "He asked me if I thought he was ready, and I said, 'Yes.' Maybe that's being too honest, but it's the truth."
Pinkel said he knew right away that Maclin was a special player. He recounted driving home after the 2007 game against Illinois and telling his wife, "We've got a superstar here."
Maclin said that the specter of another, potentially career-ending injury loomed large in his decision to leave early.
"It's definitely something you think about," he said. "In a worst-case scenario, you get hurt and you can never play football again."
Missouri finished the 2008 season at 10-4, collecting double-digit victories in consecutive years for the first time in school history.
With a high-powered spread offense led by 2007 Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniel at quarterback, the Tigers began the season with expectations of contending for a national championship. But those dreams faded following an upset loss at home to Oklahoma State, a lopsided defeat to then No. 1-Texas in Austin and a 41-point drubbing by Oklahoma in the conference title game.