COLUMBIA — Whenever Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson sees redshirt freshman tight end Sean Culkin line up as a blocker, he can’t help but think about Billy Bajema.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Bajema may not be a household name, but the 6-foot-4, 259-pound tight end is going on his ninth year in the NFL, which isn’t bad considering he was a skinny former high school quarterback who was uncomfortable putting his hand in the ground when he first arrived at Oklahoma State in 2001.
“He was as awkward as you could possibly be when it came to blocking,” Henson said of Bajema. “But he dedicated himself to it, he worked hard at it and he became a heck of blocker. …
“I’ve told (Sean) that same story.”
Which makes sense, because Henson wants to emphasize the tight end position at Missouri this season and Culkin could fit the new mold.
“I think he sees it as a position that creates mismatches and doesn’t let the defense know whether he’s passing or running,” Culkin said. “It keeps them on their heels.”
That means Henson needs to find a tight end who can pose a threat in the passing game and also block, which is harder than it sounds considering the unyielding gantlet of strong, athletic 270-pound defensive ends in the Southeastern Conference.
“Having those guys in there can give us a little change of pace, protect our edges a little bit,” Henson said of his tight ends, “maybe give us some advantages in the run game.”
Culkin, who hinted the tight end might be split out wide, attached to the line of scrimmage or used as an H-back in the new offense, may yet prove to be the best option, despite his lack of experience as a blocker.
A three-star recruit in Missouri’s 2012 recruiting class, Culkin was primarily split out wide during his time at Indian Rocks Christian School in Largo, Fla. He seemed poised to earn playing time as a true freshman last season, when he showed promise as a pass catcher during the first week of camp.
But halfway through two-a-days, Culkin broke a finger on his left hand. He missed the rest of camp and redshirted.
“This offseason, they kind of hinted to me what Henson wanted to do when he got the job,” Culkin said. “So I definitely took that to heart and tried to get my body right, get a little bit stronger and a bit bigger.”
Culkin was listed at 6 feet 5 and 232 pounds last season, but is now listed at 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds.
“I squat 600, bench 375 and ran 4.5 (40-yard dash),” said Culkin, who added that he ran a 4.7 back in high school. “So I definitely got more explosive with the (help of the) strength and conditioning coaches this year.”
Perhaps the best indication of Culkin’s strides came before preseason camp, when he surpassed Eric Waters for the top spot on the depth chart. Waters was rarely a target last season, catching only four passes for 27 yards, but is a senior who played in all 12 games last season and was primarily used as a blocker.
Culkin said he’s worked religiously on blocking technique, such as keeping his hands inside the defender and taking the correct steps. Henson sees it paying off.
“You don’t have to be the greatest athlete or have all the skill in the world,” Culkin said of blocking. “If you’re dedicated to learning the fundamentals of it and the proper execution of every rep, it’s something you’re going to be able to learn. I feel like I’ve gotten better.”
If Culkin keeps it up, he may even prove worthy of his coach’s comparison to Bajema.
“When he told us that story, I was just like ‘I could do this,’” Culkin said. “I feel like I have the skills to do it.”