Heading into Fall Camp, Missouri returns a pair of experienced and very talented tight ends, in red-shirt sophomore Albert Okwuegbunam and senior Kendall Blanton.
Not long ago, one local beat writer asked the rhetorical question: "Who saw Albert Okwuegbunam coming last year?"
As I quietly raised my hand, I thought back to my reports from last Spring and last August, when I repeatedly identified Okwuegbunam as the best receiver on the field for Missouri.
The better question might be, "Why didn't everyone else see Albert Okwuegbunam coming?"
Of course, the inevitable question then arises, "Did the Missouri coaches see Albert Okwuegbunam?"
You see, despite my evaluation that Okwuegbunam was often Missouri's best receiver on the practice field, the red-shirt freshman did not start a game until halfway through the season.
On the season, Okwuegbunam played in all 13 games for Missouri, starting the last 7, and with his on-the-field production of 29 receptions for 415 yards and 11 TDs, the red-shirt freshman earned All-SEC Second Team, and Freshman All-SEC honors. Heading into the 2018 season, Okwuegbunam has been named by some a preseason All-American.
Okwuegbunam showed a propensity for getting into the end zone, and he became one of Drew Lock's favorite red-zone targets. Besides his obviously outstanding pass-catching skills, Albert O. is also Missouri's best blocking tight end.
The Missouri coaching staff is very high on senior Kendall Blanton, who despite battling his share of injuries, has over the past 3 seasons played in 32 games for the Tigers. He has career totals of 21 receptions for 276 yards and 4 TDs. Blanton has NFL talent, although he has yet to consistently play to the level of his talent.
Here's kind of what I expect the Depth Chart at tight end to look like heading into Fall Camp:
81 Albert Okwuegbunam 6'5" 260 (So) 11 Kendall Blanton 6'6" 260 (S) 88 Logan Christopherson 6'6" 245 (RSF) OR 89 Brendan Scales 6'4" 240 (So) Messiah Swinson 6’7” 245 (F)
There's precious little experience at the tight end position behind Okwuegbunam and Blanton. Brendan Scales made it onto the field for 1 game last year. Scales is the smaller of Missouri's giant tight ends; the little guy. JP Rock has long expressed the opinion that Scales would be better served at DE, but that window of opportunity may be closing.
This Spring, Scales came on in practice, and he became very competitive for that important third tight end spot.
Although Okwuegbunam and Blanton are likely to receive the bulk of the playing time, I think it's safe to say that Missouri will play 3 tight ends. Maybe even 4 tight ends?
Following the Spring Game, I wrote, "But no one dropped nearly as many passes as did Logan Christopherson. Christopherson is Missouri's second-best blocking tight end, behind Okwuegbunam. But he drops way too many balls, and on Saturday, he was at his worst."
The coaching staff likes Christopherson, especially his size and strength, and his physical toughness. But he has yet to show that he's a reliable pass-catcher.
One of the questions regarding the tight end position during Fall Camp revolves around true freshman Messiah Swinson, who has been here all summer. How quickly will the big freshman be ready? How much will he factor in to the depth?
Derek Dooley has indicated that he's going to utilize his tight ends. From what we've seen so far, it looks like Missouri under Dooley will line up with 2 TEs on the field quite a bit.
How many TEs will the Tigers utilize in their rotation?
There are some short-yardage formations that call for a third TE on the field, so it's reasonable to expect that Dooley and Tight End Coach Joe Jon Finley will want to have at least 3-4 TEs ready to play, and gaining experience.
With the new rules allowing a player to red-shirt after playing in up to 4 games, it'll be interesting to see if Swinson can earn the chance to forego a red-shirt year?