Drew Lock couldn’t believe it.
With Missouri facing second and five early in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s upset of No. 13 Florida, the quarterback looked right and saw Daniel Parker ready to catch a pass.
Lock was sure of his read, but he was unaware of the personnel Missouri had in the game. Star tight end Albert Okweugbunam was out with a shoulder injury and backup Kendall Blanton didn’t even make the trip with a knee sprain. Parker, the former defensive end from Blue Springs, was apparently his target.
He remembers thinking, “Oh my, I’m throwing it to Daniel.”
Lock delivered Parker a low ball, but the 6-foot-4 tight end came up with the pass and managed to pick up three yards for MU. The quarterback said that if he was told early in the season that his two tight ends would be converted linemen, he wouldn’t have bet a dollar on it.
The catch completed a career day for the true freshman Parker, who had his best game since switching to offense during fall camp. Along with hauling in his first career catch, his blocking paved the way for touchdowns by Missouri tailbacks Larry Rountree and Damarea Crockett. The two MU running backs followed Parker through gigantic holes he created by eating up Florida defenders.
Suffice to say that Parker is not going back to defense anytime soon.
With Okweugbunam’s status for Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt unknown and Blanton week-to-week, he will continue to receive playing time at tight end, starting Saturday against Vanderbilt.
Besides Parker, the Tigers’ other available tight end is senior Sam Bailey, a 6-foot-5, 295 pound former offensive lineman.
“Right now our starting tight ends are a D-lineman and an O-lineman,” offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “I’m sure the coaches at Vanderbilt are not worried about the vertical threat, but maybe we’ll shock them.”
After all, Bailey did catch a 21-yard pass at South Carolina earlier this season to set up a touchdown.
When Missouri lost freshman tight end Messiah Swinson to an ACL tear during fall camp, the coaching staff started to look for options to give the position more depth behind Okwuegbunam and Blanton. Parker was a standout offensive lineman at Blue Springs High, and Bailey played some tight end at Lamar High.
Defensive line coach Brick Haley and special teams coordinator Andy Hill, Parker’s lead recruiter, told Parker he would get more immediate playing time at tight end, so the freshman agreed to a position change during training camp.
A lot of converted guys — defense to offense, or from some other sport to football — play tight end. Especially basketball players, such as the Chiefs’ Demetrius Harris, who was a power forward at Wisconsin-Milwaukee before going to the NFL. Missouri tight ends coach Joe Jon Finley said Parker’s biggest adjustment has been simply learning the playbook: the position involves all facets of the offense.
“You have to know the scheme, run game, you have to know what everyone’s doing and where you fit into the puzzle,” Finley said. “You have know route running and the protection piece as well. Short of quarterback, it’s the hardest mental position on the football field.”
Parker created Missouri’s first touchdown on Saturday, a 27-yard run by Rountree, by moving his man to open up a wide hole for Rountree to score untouched. With MU leading 14-3 in the second quarter, he blocked for Crockett on an option play and continued to shove his man into Florida’s cheerleading squad. Dooley called Parker “a phenom blocking.”
And then Parker topped it all off with his three-yard catch. Parker said it was the first time he had caught a pass since his freshman year at Blue Springs — and even that one was an interception that he snagged as an outside linebacker. He’s joked that he has the best hands in the conference, but only when it comes to blocking, not catching.
When Parker arrived on campus as one of Missouri’s few in-state pledges from a loaded local class, Odom said Parker’s mind was consistently losing focus — he’d talk halfheartedly about his desire to play basketball and throw the discus for MU’s track team.
But as Parker realized his value to the team, his focus sharpened.
“He’s grown up in understanding what his role is,” Odom said. “He’s jumped in with both feet. He’s never questioned it, never asked, anything to help our team. Can’t get enough guys like (Parker and Bailey). Their approach is something I will teach moving forward.”
Parker wouldn’t mind a couple more passes coming his way. But that’s not his main concern right now.
“I’m not really a selfish guy,” he said. “I’m just here to block.”
Odom said he plans to sit down with Parker after the season to discuss whether he wants to stay at tight end or move to another position, but the coach isn’t really worried about the situation.
He already knows what Parker is going to say: “Wherever I’m needed.”