It was a strange sight when Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk connected with tight end Sean Culkin on the first two plays Saturday in a 49-24 win at Toledo.
Not so long ago, the 20th-ranked Tigers regularly churned out All-American tight ends, but during offensive coordinator Josh Henson’s first season last year, there were only nine completions to tight ends.
While Culkin had only those two catches for 23 yards against the Rockets, Missouri remains adamant that working the tight ends into the passing game again is a priority.
“Every year it changes depending on maturity and growth and how guys have improved,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “(Culkin) made some really good catches, and we used him in the running game. That adds a different variety to our offense and allows us to do some different things. We certainly plan on using him.”
As a redshirt freshman, Culkin caught only one pass, a 6-yard reception against Murray State, but he showed some skills against Toledo that proved his effectiveness.
Mauk’s second pass to Culkin — a 6-foot-6, 245-pound tight end from Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., in the Tampa/St. Petersburg suburbs — was a bit off-target, but Culkin still snared it for a 17-yard reception. He also opened some eyes in the process.
“He’s a large body, a large target, and you can kind of put the ball on him, and it’s hard for defenders to get through his body to get to the football,” Henson said. “The second catch he made the other day was a heck of a catch. The ball was a little bit behind him. He flipped his hips around and made a heck of an athletic catch, so I think Sean can do some really good things for us in the passing game.”
Culkin came to Missouri, which is host to Central Florida at 11 a.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium, with dreams of being an All-American.
And why not? Three Tigers tight ends — Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman and Michael Egnew — won All-America distinction during 2007-10.
While he understands that the days when tight ends catch 80-plus passes are done, Culkin is confident he can add to Missouri’s tight-end legacy.
“It’s cool to follow after those guys,” Culkin said. “I’ve got some pretty big footsteps to fill because those are some great players who did some unbelievable things here in their careers. But I try to be me and make myself the best player I can be, be the next Sean Culkin really.”
Besides, the new emphasis on well-rounded tight ends who actually block in the run game rather than line up in the slot might bolster Culkin’s chances to live his NFL dream.
“I don’t mind it,” he said of blocking. “It’s part of football and it’s developed me into a better tight end, so it’s something I enjoy. You’ve got to be able to block to really succeed at the next level.”
Of course, he wouldn’t mind if Mauk kept targeting him a few times each game either — and that’s the plan.
“There’s a couple times (against Toledo) he was open on for big gains if he would have gotten it,” Henson said. “All those things will click some day and he’ll come out of a game with six, seven, eight catches and 100 yards. It’s going to happen.”