Mizzou camp preview: Tight end
It’s been an offseason like no other for the Missouri football program. The Tigers fired four-year head coach Barry Odom following a 6-6 2019 campaign, replacing him with Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz cleaned house on the offensive side of the ball, then just after the team began holding spring practices, the COVID-19 pandemic hit college sports. Missouri had to cancel 12 of its 15 originally scheduled practices, as well as the Black and Gold game, in the spring. While the team was able to return for voluntary strength and conditioning workouts this summer, which have since transitioned to mandatory practices, the Tigers have still only once taken the field in pads under Drinkwitz’s watch.
Despite all the uncertainty that continues to swirl around the 2020 season, the SEC took a step toward having a college football season on Thursday. The league announced that each team would play a 10-game, conference-only schedule beginning Sept. 26. Missouri and the rest of the league are still set to start call camp practices Aug. 7. So, each day between now and then, PowerMizzou is previewing the Tiger roster one position group at a time, breaking down the depth chart and providing the storylines to watch for what should be the most important fall camp in recent memory. Today, we take a look at Missouri's tight end room.
With all-SEC tight end Albert Okwuegbunam gone to the NFL, this should be Daniel Parker Jr.’s position to lose. Parker persevered through a significant offseason health scare, as a tooth infection spread to his eye, necessitating emergency surgery and impairing his vision, but by all accounts his eyesight is back to normal and he is working out with the team.
Parker came to Missouri as a defensive end, but the coaching staff knew about his blocking ability thanks to his time as a tackle in high school. He transitioned to tight end during fall camp prior to his freshman season and made an immediate impact, mainly as a run-blocker. Parker started to get more looks in the passing game last season, catching 15 passes. While he’s unlikely to split out wide or run downfield routes like Okwiegbunam, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if Parker continues to be more involved as a receiver in 2020.
Even after Okwuegbunam declared for the NFL Draft, the coaching staff felt Missouri had enough tight end depth left on the roster that it didn’t add anyone else to the position during the offseason. The most experienced of those players will be senior Brendan Scales. Scales has just one career catch, but he earned praise from the old coaching staff prior to last season. Unfortunately, a broken foot in fall camp largely kept him off the field. Redshirt junior Logan Christopherson saw increased playing time last season in Scales’ absence, but he was used almost exclusively as a blocker — according to Pro Football Focus, only six of the 59 offensive snaps he played last season were passing plays.
Aside from Parker, the tight end with the most receiving experience is actually the youngest member of the group: sophomore Niko Hea. Hea turned heads during fall camp a season ago and served as the Tigers’ third tight end for much of the season, catching three passes for 30 yards. Finally, redshirt sophomore Messiah Swinson is the wildcard of the group. Swinson earned high praise when he first hit campus, but a torn ACL caused him to miss the entire 2018 season, then he hardly played a season ago. At 6-foot-7, Swinson certainly has the look of an effective red-zone target, and maybe the coaching change will provide him the opportunity to move up the depth chart.
Storyline to watch
At least one other tight end will have to play regularly next to Parker, and as of this moment the competition for that spot appears wide open. It will be interesting to see whether one player among Christopherson, Hea, Scales and Swinson separates himself from the others or if each is used in a situational role that best utilizes his skillset. Additionally, there are a lot of different ways to incorporate tight ends into an offense — Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State unit utilized an H-back, for instance — so there will be plenty of intrigue surrounding this unit.
It would surprise everyone if Parker didn’t emerge from fall camp as the starter. As of now, we’re leaning toward the belief that several other tight ends will play limited, situational roles alongside him, with Hea getting first crack at most of the receiving routes.