Missouri football’s newest offensive threat does not put his clothes in a dryer. He is scared they will shrink, and Albert Okwuegbunam has already pushed them to their limits.
That’s what happens when a tight end gains about 40 pounds in a year.
This also happens: “Pants are really hard to find,” said the 6-foot-5, 260-pound redshirt freshman, whose last name is pronounced O-coo-WAY-boo-nahm.
He can deal with the annoyances, though, because there have been benefits to eating two waffles and a plateful of eggs for breakfast each morning. After catching three touchdowns in Missouri’s win over Idaho last weekend, the former high school wide receiver from Springfield, Ill., is now Mizzou’s No. 1 tight end. He is also the reigning Southeastern Conference co-freshman of the week.
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Okwuegbunam’s three scores against the Vandals came over the middle of the field, and he went untouched for each of them. The hardest part, he said, was staying focused while the ball flew toward him for what seemed like forever. The touchdowns all came on passes up the middle, after quarterback Drew Lock faked a handoff to a running back.
Missouri should face tougher defenses than Idaho’s, so reaching the end zone won’t always be so easy for Okwuegbunam, but his emergence is still encouraging for the Tigers.
Even as they began to score more in recent weeks, beginning in their loss at Kentucky, the Tigers’ offense appeared somewhat one-dimensional: Lock heaved the ball to Emanuel Hall down the sideline. Against Idaho, Okwuegbunam benefited from defenses paying attention to Hall and J’Mon Moore on the outside, which left the middle of the field open as he faced single coverage.
Against Georgia, Okwuegbunam had an 18-yard catch on a corner route, and then he caught a 4-yard shovel pass for a touchdown.
“That could be used in any offense in this country, a guy looking like that, running like that,” Lock said. “ … I can put it anywhere. I believe he’s going to go up and make a play for me.”
Okwuegbunam’s performance against Idaho made him the first MU tight end to score three touchdowns in a game since Chase Coffman in 2007 against Colorado. Coffman took three quarters for his few scores. Okwuegbunam only took one, and he fulfilled the promise Missouri’s running backs coach, Cornell Ford, saw in him as a tight end — even when Okwuegbunam didn’t see it.
“He always saw himself as a wide receiver,” said Ford, who served as Okwuegbunam’s primary recruiter. “I always told him he was going to be a tight end.”
Ford saw the redshirt freshman’s frame and knew Okwuegbunam would be able to add muscle. After watching Okwuegbunam play basketball, though, Ford was uncertain about the then-recruit’s willingness to be aggressive and serve as a blocker.
“He was going up against really munchkins, and they were pushing him around,” Ford said of the basketball game.
He wondered whether Okwuegbunam could play in the SEC but took a risk because of the tight end’s athleticism. Okwuegbunam committed to the Tigers in Sept. 2015.
He was uncertain of his status with the program when Barry Odom took over as coach later that year, but a visit from Odom and tight end coach Joe Jon Finley convinced Okwuegbunam to keep his commitment to Missouri. An early dunk from Okwuegbunam convinced Finley he wanted the tight end.
“You don’t pass on a guy that’s 6-foot-6,” said Finley, who couldn’t name another player who gained as much muscle as fast as Okwuegbunam did.
Okwuegbunam’s biggest challenge is consistently playing at the right pace. The tight end, who has 11 catches for 159 yards and five touchdowns, is still adjusting to the speed of college football. He’s also still adjusting to his bigger body, Finley said — though he’s already using it well.
“It definitely helps when you put on 30 pounds,” Okwuegbunam said.