Don’t be stunned if we’re talking about Missouri tight end Kendall Blanton’s draft stock next season.
Blanton, a Blue Springs South graduate, is the type of tantalizing athlete — a 6-foot-6, 265-pound former basketball player with the agility of a gazelle — that NFL teams covet.
As a sophomore last season, Blanton made 16 catches for 161 yards and tied for second on the Tigers with three touchdowns.
It wasn’t overwhelming production, but Blanton showed flashes of being an uncoverable nightmare, especially in the red zone, for opposing defenses.
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Blanton also grew as a blocker, a skill set that should continue to develop entering his junior season next fall, and was athletic enough to work as a halfback, in line or from the slot.
The first step for Blanton right now is to get healthy after undergoing surgery on his right ankle, which forced him to miss spring practice, after a severe sprain during an individual workout in February.
But he vowed to be ready by training camp for a breakout 2017 season.
“Everybody goes through some trials and tribulations,” Blanton said. “This is just a little hurdle. It’s frustrating not being out there because I’m a competitor. I want to work with my brothers and work against the defense … but this isn’t going to stop me from what I want to do in the fall or in the future.”
After redshirting in 2014 and playing only special teams in 2015, Blanton has finally shed the raw label and is eager to emerge as a true playmaker after sharpening his gridiron IQ.
“Right now, all I can do is get mental reps in,” Blanton said. “I’m really seeing the game through a different perspective. I’m a coach right now, so I get to see everything I don’t see when I’m out there. … If somebody takes a wrong step or could’ve run their route a little bit different, I’m picking up on that and how to adjust in certain situations from being on the sideline. I’m learning in a different type of way.”
He’s also not alone among Mizzou’s talented tight end corps.
Senior Jason Reese, who has 24 receptions for 235 yards with two touchdowns in his career, is the veteran of the group, which also includes a pair of talented redshirt freshmen in Albert Okwuegbunam and Brendan Scales.
“Expect a lot of productivity from the tight ends in our offense next year, especially down the field and getting those first downs, everything,” said Okwuegbunam, who was among the brightest stars during spring practice.
Blanton’s absence opened up reps, and Okwuegbunam seized the opportunity to improve by leaps and bounds.
“That definitely helps you out in every aspect,” Okwuegbunam said. “I’ve made a huge improvement from last year just being comfortable with our offense.”
Okwuegbunam, who essentially played slot receiver at Sacred Heart Griffin High in Springfield, Ill., needed time to adjust to blocking responsibilities and lining up in a three-point stance.
Meanwhile, Scales — a 6-foot-4, 240-pound former Alabama commit from Lafayette High in suburban St. Louis — might be the best blocker of the bunch and is an emerging weapon as a pass-catcher.
“Both of them are playmakers,” Blanton said. “That’s why they’re here. They were playmakers when they first got here, tearing up defenses on the scout team last year, so I knew they were playmakers.”
Now, he hopes SEC teams learn a thing or two about it in the fall.
MIZZOU SPRING POSITION BREAKDOWN
TIGHT ENDS (5)
Project depth (string): (1) Kendall Blanton, junior; (2) Jason Reese, senior; (3) Albert Okwuegbunam, redshirt freshman; (4) Brendan Scales, redshirt freshman.
Potential impact additions: Logan Christopherson, freshman
Analysis: Losing Sean Culkin is a blow. Yes, he was occasionally injury-prone, but he set the tone in that room with his selflessness, his work ethic, his experience, and his productivity.
Culkin was Mizzou’s top pass-catching tight for three straight seasons and finished in the top six overall in receiving yards each year for the Tigers, totaling 60 catches for 595 yards and two touchdowns during that span.
He passes the torch to Blanton and Reese, who have game-day experience and are reliable targets. Blanton has the most upside and could be poised for a monster year, depending on his health and growth as the player as well as the evolution of the position within offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s offense.
Don’t be shocked if Okwuegbunam pushes his way up the depth chart during training camp and is a fixture on the field by midseason. Scales’ development also bears monitoring, while Christopherson projects as a redshirt unless there is a glaring need on special needs.
Overall grade: B+. It’s a strong position group with tons of upside, but it lacks a proven weapon. There’s reason to believe Blanton will emerge as one of the SEC’s top playmakers at the position, but until he does it’s hard to put the group in the A range.
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