Tight ends could prove to be the x-factor in new-look Missouri offense

Okwuegbunam, Blanton and Scales are making their presence felt at Mizzou camp.
Redshirt sophomore tight end Albert Okwuegbunam goes to block an opposing defender during an afternoon practice at Missouri football camp at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex on August 13, 2018.

The 2018 Missouri football squad will look to build on the big-yardage, deep ball-throwing offense of last season with as many as 11 returning starters, including a quarterback who led the nation in touchdown passes in Drew Lock and a wide receiver who had more than 800 yards receiving in Emanuel Hall.

With that, one of the bigger focal points for this year’s offense may be the tight end group, especially with a change of offensive coordinator. Under new OC Derek Dooley — the former Tennessee head coach turned NFL positional coach -- the Missouri offense plans to use tight ends more than predecessor Josh Heupel did. With multiple tight end sets, there will be plenty of opportunities for the position group to make its impact felt in both the run and pass game.

“It’s a lot different, there’s so many more combinations and everything,” sophomore tight end Brendan Scales said of the route tree in Dooley’s new offense. “The concepts make more sense to me.”

Scales is one of five tight ends listed on the 2018 roster, along with freshman Messiah Swinson, redshirt freshman Logan Christopherson, redshirt sophomore Albert Okwuegbunam and senior Kendall Blanton.

Okwuegbunam’s freshman campaign makes him the most notable tight end on this roster. After leading the nation in touchdown receptions from his position and finishing the year averaging 14.3 yards per catch, Okwuegbunam finished 2017 on the SEC All-Freshman first team. His teammates point to his versatility as his strongest skill.

“It helps when you can get him into different areas on the field,” Drew Lock said, “have him matchup against corners that wouldn't dream of ever seeing him in the box. And now they’re seeing him out wide, stepping through tackles and that kind of stuff … speaks a lot about what kind of athlete he is and just how useful in this offense he is.”

The dynamic receiver-turned-end will likely be the top target of the position group, but tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley had a lot to say about many of his guys, specifically Scales and Blanton.

“I think [Scales has] kind of learned that ‘I’ve got to know everything in the playbook in order for me to go out and play as fast as I am,’” Finley said. “Because he’s very fast and very explosive, but when you’re out there thinking and playing like you don’t know what to do for sure, then you’re playing like you run 5-4 … when he knows what to do he’s one of the most explosive athletes we have.”

While Scales, a sophomore, has improved a lot mentally according to Finley, he hammered home that Blanton has set an example for his teammates for quite some time.

“Everyone on this football team knows what he brings to us; leadership,” Finley said of Blanton. “He plays as hard as anyone on our offense, day in and day out and so he has the respect of everyone on our offense and with what we’re doing this year, he’s going to have a very successful year.”

Finley even had good things to say about Messiah Swinson, who likely won’t be seeing the field this year, as he tore his ACL just a couple of days ago.

“He’s a big, strong athlete that can catch the ball behind his head with one hand,” Finley said. “I mean his hands are an inch longer than mine and I don’t have small hands … very excited about what he brings, his hands and his physicality.”

With what will likely be a trifecta of tight ends to hit the field this year for Mizzou, Okwuegbunam emphasized the fact that opponents won’t be able to focus all of their attention on just him or even the tight end position all too much.

“That’s where other wideouts come into play,” Okwuegbunam said. “They can’t hone in on me too much because then we have [Emanuel] Hall, Nate Brown and [James Johnson] out there, so it’s really going to be fun.”

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