COLUMBIA, Mo. – A scrum surrounded Albert Okwuegbunam for the first time all season during Tuesday’s media availability. The gangly 6-foot-5, 260-pound tight end was named co-Southeastern Conference freshman of the week Monday, and his three-touchdown day against Idaho on Saturday sparked a rush of attention as quick as his seam routes through the Vandals’ secondary.
Okwuegbunam, a redshirt freshman from Springfield, Ill., was concise as questions were volleyed his way from around the half-circle of humanity surrounding him.
“It’s just been really fun,” he said when asked about all the hubbub. “I put in a lot of work this offseason. It’s just good to get out there and get opportunities.”
Behind the scrum, defensive end Tre Williams peered over a reporter’s shoulder. The reporter was filming Okwuegbunam’s responses with his cell phone, and Williams was transfixed on the screen.
“That’s my brother,” Williams, a fellow redshirt freshman, said of the tight end.
Their friendship started last year, when both were residents of Defoe Hall on MU’s campus along with a slew of other freshman football players.
The pair is Missouri’s version of "The Odd Couple." Okwuegbunam is soft-spoken and calculated, while Williams is bouncy and unreserved.
“He’s a real genuine guy,” Williams said. “If there’s any decision I feel is iffy, I run it by Albert first, because Albert is an intelligent guy. … He’ll say, ‘Honestly, this is what you need to do.’”
Yet their commonalities brought them together. They’re the same age. They had mutual friends, like quarterback Micah Wilson. They both packed on the pounds – Williams went from 220 to 250, while Okwuegbunam climbed from 225 to 260 – which meant neither had clothes that fit.
“He was getting bigger but not knowing. He had these baby shorts on,” Williams said. “And me, I didn’t know either, so we’re both wearing too-tiny clothes.”
They played positions in different phases, but not playing at all last year was another thing Okwuegbunam and Williams had in common.
Okwuegbunam (pronounced Ohquh-aye-boo-nom) was more patient than the high-strung Williams, who yearned to see action and share the field with his friend Charles Harris.
“I was sulking a lot,” Williams said. “‘Man, I should be out there. I want to play with Charles. It’s his last year. I want to get in there.’” Albert is “like, ‘You want to play with Charles – you should be focused on trying to be better than Charles. Go in there and get some work on the field.’
“Me and him would come in here (to the Devine Pavilion). He’d come and catch passes. Me, I’d hit bags. Now look. He’s making three touchdowns and actually contributing to the team. You’ve got me coming in and actually making a difference on the defense. Whatever he said, it’s really come true because we put it to action.”
Okwuegbunam had his own transition to see through from high school wide receiver to college tight end. A number of schools recruited him as an athlete but fixated on his potential catching passes and blocking on the line.
He was nearly unstoppable in the open field, though, where his height didn’t match his uncommon speed and elusiveness. Okwuegbunam stands by the assertion that he wasn’t brought to the ground for five straight games during a stretch in his high school career.
“A lot of people would bounce off of me or I’d get run out of bounds,” he said, though Drew Lock was initially skeptical when Okwuegbunam told him the story this summer.
“I was like, ‘All right, Albert, whatever you say.’ Ended up watching it, and it kinda was true,” Lock said. “... I didn’t know how fast Albert could be with how big he was. Kinda looks like (6-7, 328-pound offensive tackle) Yasir Durant running down the field. Albert showed me he’s got the jets and he’s got the soft hands. Putting all those components together, it’s kind of a scary thing to think about that guy running down the field.”
His emergence is a huge development for Missouri’s offense, which struggled to find a second option against Georgia’s defense once the Bulldogs sold out to stop Emanuel Hall’s go-routes. (Okwuegbunam had a touchdown in that game, too, but finished with only two catches for 22 yards.)
Against Idaho, Okwuegbunam allowed the Tigers to exploit one-on-one matchups in the middle of the field.
“He’s got to continue to learn to play fast every snap,” coach Barry Odom said. “The speed of the game for him has been the thing we worked on the most. You gotta do it for however many snaps. You gotta do it every play. He’s learning.”
He’s learning quickly, and with 3 1/2 years of eligibility remaining, there could be plenty more packed media scrums in Okwuegbunam’s future.