COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri’s formidable tight end group rumbles into its daily morning meeting at 7 a.m., outside of the normal hours kept by most 18- to 22-year olds.
They’re instantly met by tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley, who by 7 a.m. has been up for hours and is well past blinking sleep out of his eyes.
“That guy gets up at like four in the morning and takes his pre-workout (supplement), coffee and hits the weight room so he’s pretty jacked up,” senior tight end Kendall Blanton said Friday. “... He’s probably the most juiced up one in the room.”
Finley was a four-year starter at tight end for Oklahoma from 2004-07. In the 2007 Big 12 Championship game, his 4-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter – which gave the Sooners an 18-point lead – essentially ended the Tigers’ short run at No. 1 that season.
Most Missouri fans now simply know Finley as the coach who has led one of the Tigers’ most consistently productive units for the last three seasons.
Two of Finley’s pupils at Missouri have already gone on to the NFL. Sean Culkin played for the Los Angeles Chargers throughout 2017, and Jason Reese was picked up by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason as an undrafted free agent. Both players made it to training camp this fall.
In 2018, the Tigers bring back all-Southeastern Conference tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (6-foot-5, 255 pounds), and 6-foot-6, 260-pound Blue Springs South graduate Kendall Blanton. They alone would make the position one of the most promising on the roster this season, but Missouri also has plenty of depth behind them.
Redshirt freshman Logan Christopherson (6-6, 245) has returned from an ankle surgery last August that, for all intents and purposes, ended his freshman season. He and Brendan Scales (6-4, 235), a former Alabama commit from Wildwood, are in line to back up Okwuegbunam and Blanton.
Add 6-7, 260 freshman Messiah Swinson to the mix, and there’s five tight ends in the squad who could play a sizeable role for Missouri in 2018.
It was a point worth noting on a day when offensive coordinator Derek Dooley suggested in perfectly clear terms that no players, even returning starters, were guaranteed spots in the starting lineup for Week 1.
Even all-conference players, Dooley said, were obligated to remain at that level to maintain their starting status.
But that’s a good problem for Finley, who has plenty of talent at his disposal. Okwuegbunam’s 11 touchdowns last season as a redshirt freshman led all tight ends across the country. Blanton has showed flashes of promise through his three seasons at Missouri – particularly in his one touchdown catch of last season, an impressive grab over a defensive back against Florida – and his size makes him an intriguing NFL prospect. Christopherson was a burgeoning talent before getting hurt last fall, and Scales has been taking reps with the second team on certain packages already in camp.
Swinson’s addition suggests that the talent at Finley’s disposal might be feeding into a victorious – rather than vicious – cycle. Swinson said his relationship with Finley was the best of any tight ends coach that recruited him and that he took particular notice of Okwuegbunam’s breakout season.
“Watching Albert last year, that was something that really drew me here,” Swinson said. “Led the country in tight end touchdowns. That was awesome. That was something I wanted to do. Sean Culkin, he was in the league. Jason Reese is in the league this year. It’s just this continuous flow of tight ends every year.”
That circled back around to Swinson complimenting Finley’s ability to find and develop tight ends. Left unsaid was the potential for Swinson to join that group soon himself.
That’s enough to get any coach excited.
“He’s high energy all the time,” Swinson said. “Positive. If you mess up, he’s going to correct you.”
But what drives Finley to those early-morning workouts and maintains his constant source of energy might be something even more personal.
“I think he’s just trying re-live through us,” Christopherson reckoned.