Waffles, a position change and high school basketball: Albert Okwuegbunam’s unique journey to Missouri football

Missouri football’s No. 1 tight end has caught five touchdowns this season.

TE Albert Okwuegbunam (81) catches a touchdown against Idaho in Missouri's 68-21 victory on Homecoming. Okwuegbunam caught three touchdowns on the day. Maneater File Photo

In Missouri football’s media guide, Albert Okwuegbunam’s last name is phonetically spelled out as O-kwoo-AYE-boo-nam. The redshirt freshman tight end’s last name is a mouthful.

He’s grown used to people butchering it.

“I’ve heard it all on pronunciations on my last name,” Okwuegbunam said. “Nothing surprises me anymore.”

For opposing defenses this season, he’s been less of a mouthful — and more of a handful.

Unheralded prior to this season, Okwuegbunam has emerged in a big way for Missouri in 2017. Through seven games, he’s recorded 11 catches for 159 yards and five touchdowns, which means almost half of his catches have resulted in Missouri touchdowns this season.

His emergence, in particular his three-touchdown performance against Idaho, has earned him the attention of Missouri fans and media.

“It’s all been really fun,” he said amid a media scrum after Tuesday’s practice.

From his teammates’ perspective, Okwuegbunam’s success is not unprecedented. They’ve seen his growth in his time as a redshirt freshman. The quiet man from Springfield, Illinois, has developed into a reliable playmaker and a great teammate.

At Sacred Heart-Griffin High School in Springfield, Okwuegbunam played wide receiver. At the time, he was listed at 6-foot-5 and 223 pounds, and his imposing frame at wide receiver proved to be an unstoppable force at the high school level.

“My senior year, I went my first four varsity games without being tackled,” Okwuegbunam said. “I was a big wideout, but still.”

As his time in high school wound down, college coaches approached Okwuegbunam about playing the tight end position. Many schools, such as Michigan State, Nebraska and West Virginia, showed interest in Okwuegbunam. However, then-first-year head coach Barry Odom made a distinct effort to set Missouri apart in his recruiting.

“Coach Odom and [tight ends coach Joe Jon] Finley both came to one of my varsity basketball games my senior year,” Okwuegbunam said. “And that really sold me on Missouri.”

So far, Okwuegbunam has been a huge success for Odom and the Tigers’ offense. Junior quarterback Drew Lock is a big fan of Okwuegbunam, too.

Lock, who has connected with Okwuegbunam for five of his 23 touchdown passes on the season, was surprised to find out his tight end played wideout prior to his time at Missouri.

“He told me he was a wide receiver in high school, and I didn’t believe him,” Lock said. “But once we started practicing together, I began to see a lot of receiver in him.”

A number of schools, including Missouri, recruited him as an athlete, focusing on his blocking and pass-catching potential.

“I also remember being really surprised at how fast he was,” Lock said. “He showed me he can turn on the jets, and he’s got silk hands, too.”

Initially, it was an awkward process as Okwuegbunam took a redshirt year to familiarize himself with the Missouri offense and settle into his new position.

“When I first got here, playing tight end — specifically pass catching, tracking the ball, and blocking — I was really uncomfortable.”

In his redshirt season, Okwuegbunam focused on increasing his skills and his size.

“When I first got here, I was eating a lot,” Okwuegbunam said. “Two waffles, a whole egg and cereal for breakfast. Everyone joked that I was a biscuit away from being an offensive tackle.”

He exceeded Missouri’s target goal of 250 pounds, currently weighing in at 260. His ability to stay lean while at that weight has proved valuable this season.

“Not just Missouri, but a lot of schools wanted me at 250 [pounds] in college, and being 225 in high school, that was intimidating,” Okwuegbunam said. “But it happened.”

Slowly but surely, Okwuegbunam became familiar with the position. His growing size made him increasingly difficult to tackle in the open field. On each of his three touchdown catches against Idaho, he crossed the goal line without being touched.

Missouri has continued to exploit defenses that try to match up with Okwuegbunam by running him on seam routes over the top of linebackers and safeties. So far, it has worked. Four of Okwuegbunam’s touchdowns have come on that passing play.

“The seam route has been working,” Okwuegbunam said. “I like it a lot.”

It’s a simple answer for what’s been a simple formula for success in the 2017 season.

Edited by Eli Lederman | elederman@themaneater.com

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