Culkin looks to recreate memories of the past in his final year

Tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley: “He wants to be so good himself, but more than that he wants the team to be successful in his last year.”
Sean Culkin plays in a 2015 Missouri game against Southeast Missouri State in Columbia. Courtesy of Mizzou Athletics

Sean Culkin has seen a lot during his time in Columbia.

In his five years as a Missouri Tiger, the tight end has traveled to Atlanta twice, seen Faurot Field stormed, won a Cotton Bowl and been a part of a football team that took a stand and threatened not to play.

Through it all, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound redshirt senior has kept a level head and remained a leader to his teammates. In a team that is under a brand-new coaching staff, that leadership ability is crucial.

“He’s unbelievable,” tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley said. “He’s unbelievable. He’s been here the longest, and you can tell that. He cares about the Tiger he puts on his chest. He wants to be so good himself, but more than that he wants the team to be successful in his last year.”

Culkin’s leadership stems from his selflessness. As long as the team is scoring, Culkin is happy.

“[My favorite part of the offense is] anything that gets us in the end zone, man,” Culkin said. “Whether that’s me catching the ball and scoring or getting a first down or freeing up and having a great block and seeing one of the running backs take it for 30. That’s all I want as a tight end.”

Almost none of what makes Culkin happy occurred last season. He only recorded 16 catches and one touchdown in a season that was supposed to be one where he left a mark on the field.

Culkin battled a knee sprain throughout his redshirt junior season, forcing him to sit out two games and play a limited role in the games he did appear in. Even when he was in, the offense struggled to perform.

Now, Culkin plays under new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who took little time to introduce the tight end corps to a new, more intense role in the Missouri offense.

“He asks a lot of us, in being able to help in all aspects of the game, where he lines us up,” Culkin said. “Whether it’s in the slot running routes or being in pass protection and helping [Drew Lock] get off a deep ball or getting myself on a linebacker sometimes. There’s a lot they ask for us, but it’s fun.”

Heupel has a history of churning out high-flying offenses that utilize tight ends well. During his time as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, four Sooner tight ends were drafted into the NFL, including two-time Pro Bowler Jermaine Gresham.

Part of the reason Heupel has been so successful with tight ends is that he finds creative, if not complicated, ways to use them. Heupel puts his tight ends in various formations, often with complex tasks assigned to them every play.

“It’s hard for [Culkin] because he’s really playing a bunch of different positions,” he said. “He’s playing receiver, he’s playing tight end, he’s playing fullback. Sometimes he’s playing tackle. He’s really embraced that, as have the other guys, and that’s what makes him great.”

Despite having much to learn when Heupel introduced his offense, Culkin was quick to learn the playbook and find a place in it.

“The main thing he does is that he’s a technician,” Finley said. “If I tell him one time to get his right hand inside on a certain block, it’s done. If I told him the first day of spring, it’s still happening today.”

Culkin flashed his skill set against West Virginia, catching two passes for 29 yards. One of those catches came with a Mountaineer defensive back draped over his back before the pass even got to him. The performance earned him a nod from the coaching staff.

“Without getting into details, we just have to find a way to get him the ball,” Finley said. “He is a leader and understands. He’s one of the few guys who have played multiple games and started multiple games before West Virginia. We just have to continue to use him.”

Culkin was sidelined for the game against Eastern Michigan after suffering a left foot sprain last Wednesday in practice. During the game, Heupel showcased just how much he plans to use tight ends as the season goes on.

Mizzou’s tight ends had six catches for 58 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers’ 61-21 victory over Eastern Michigan.

“[The tight end] will be a main part of what we do over the course of the season,” Heupel said before the game.

In the end, Culkin has other things on his mind than just personal success. He wants to finish his college career with the success he found at the beginning of his time at Missouri.

“I want to be consistent and master my craft every single play, be a leader for the offense and go as far as I can with the team,” Culkin said. “We want to go back to Atlanta and get that going. We’re not making predictions or anything, just taking it day by day and working hard.”

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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