Tight end roles up for grabs in Mizzou offense
Blue Springs graduate Daniel Parker Jr. expected to be starter among deep group
COLUMBIA, Mo. – With Albert Okwuegbunam reunited with his college quarterback in Denver, the Missouri Tigers are left figuring out ways to replace the former all-conference tight end.
Spoiler: They probably won't.
At least not in the sense of replacing his prominent role as one of the nation's best pass-catching tight ends.
As much as Okwuegbunam struggled last season with injuries (and drops and penalties), unreliable quarterback play and erratic game plans, he's still as gifted as any tight end the Tigers have produced in decades with his rare combination of elite size and speed. But to no one's surprise, he entered the NFL draft after his junior year and went to the Broncos in the fourth round. He'll catch Drew Lock's passes this fall.
Left behind is Mizzou's tight end island of misfit toys.
The Tigers have five scholarship tight ends on the roster, four of whom have already suffered major injuries or health issues in college. Outside of junior Daniel Parker Jr., the rest of the cast has combined for all of three receptions.
Tight ends coach Casey Woods is naturally biased, but he's upbeat about his group.
"We got guys that have very broad skill sets that can accomplish a lot of different things in this offense," Woods said. "As the tight ends coach, I love tight ends on the field. We want to be in the game. If I were calling plays we'd be 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends) every snap."
The list of playing time contenders starts with Parker, a seven-game starter last year who excels as a point-of-attack blocker. The junior from Blue Springs High School missed parts of offseason training while recovering from an eye infection that required multiple surgeries and nearly cost him his vision.
After Parker, Woods has four options with minimal game experience. Logan Christopherson, a redshirt junior, has emerged as a top backup in his fourth season. He's appeared in 14 games, playing mostly on special teams, and still looking for his first career reception. Christopherson (6-foot-6, 255 pounds) appeared poised for playing time as a freshman way back in 2017 but a preseason high-ankle sprain required surgery and kept him on the sideline the rest of the fall.
Messiah Swinson (6-7, 255) showed up two years ago looking like an Okwuegbunam clone – only to suffer a season-ending torn ACL in preseason camp. He played in one game last year. Like Christopherson, his next reception in a game will be his first.
Last summer, Niko Hea (6-5, 250) was the latest freshman camp revelation under former coach Barry Odom and his staff. The rookie from CBC skipped past Swinson and Christopherson on the depth chart and earned time in 10 games with three catches for 30 yards.
Then there's Brendan Scales, a fifth-year senior from Lafayette-Wildwood whose long-awaited breakthrough came last August – right up until he broke his foot and missed all but one game for the season. It was nearly five years ago when Scales broke his commitment to Alabama and chose the Tigers on national signing day after the Crimson Tide asked him to delay joining the team for a year.
Back for a fifth season he's just looking for a role in the third offensive system he's had to learn.
"I know the tight end is used a lot," Scales said. "My role? I don't know yet. Some blocking, some passing. Same as everybody else, so I'm not 100 percent sure of my role yet. But I'm excited about it."
Woods has less than a month to evaluate his group and figure out who fits where. Parker appears set as Mizzou's top tight end. From there?
"I think Logan Christopherson has done a great job stepping up, and so far I'm really proud of him," Woods said. "I thought Niko had a great summer, and I'm excited to watch him continue to develop. Brendan Scales and Messiah Swinson both didn't have a lot of success early because they battled some injuries. I've been really impressed because both of those guys really want to play. They really want to play and invest in this team. They're really working hard, but they've got a ways to go. Obviously we're putting in an entire new scheme on an abbreviated schedule, unlike any schedule that an offense has ever been taught."
Considering Mizzou had only three practices in the spring and couldn't begin traditional preseason practices until the third week of August, Woods said the staff must "reframe" how it measures the group's development. But the season's first game, against No. 3 Alabama on Sept. 26, is only getting closer.
"We've got to put the hammer down if we're going to account for the productivity that's been here in this tight end room before," Woods said.
Memories of those former tight end greats now hang on the walls in Woods' meeting room, like former All-Americans Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman.
"Those are the guys that we're trying to be like," he said.
Lofty ambitions, but first, the tight ends need to get on the field. That won't happen without a compelling reason. Tight ends haven't always posted prolific receiving numbers in Eliah Drinkwitz's offense. At Appalachian State last year, Drinkwitz's top two tight ends combined for just 14 catches.
"If (tight ends) give us an advantage by putting them in the game, then yeah, we like to utilize them," Drinkwitz said. "We're not going to put somebody out there just because they're a tight end. Whoever gives us the best 11 matchup-wise and the ability to play and affect the game offensively is what we'll utilize."