Position Reset: Tight end
The second Missouri football season of the Eli Drinkwitz era has come and gone. The Tigers started the 2021 campaign slow, losing early swing games at Kentucky and Boston College and getting blown out by Tennessee, but then rallied late to win six games and attain bowl eligibility. After falling to Army on the final play of the Armed Forces Bowl, Mizzou finished the season 6-7.
Now, it's time to take stock of the roster. Missouri, like virtually every other team, has already seen several players enter the transfer portal since the season ended. More attrition is expected. In this series, we'll go position by position to break down which players are expected to return and where the team could stand to add a difference-maker. In this edition, we take a look at the position that has experienced more turnover than any other since the end of the regular season: tight end.
Missouri brought back a pair of experienced tight ends for the 2021 season in Daniel Parker Jr. and Niko Hea. While the duo wasn't exactly the centerpiece of the offense, they both played significant roles. Parker, known for his blocking ability, helped pave the way for Tyler Badie's record-breaking season on the ground. He also served as a receiving weapon in the red zone, catching three touchdowns as well as the game-winning two-point conversion against Florida. Hea was a more consistent presence as a pass-catcher, catching 18 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns on the season.
By the Tigers' bowl game, however, the position group looked totally different. Parker entered the transfer portal following Missouri's regular season finale. He will play his final season at Oklahoma. Redshirt sophomore Messiah Swinson followed suit and has committed to Arizona State. And Hea missed the Armed Forces Bowl due to an undisclosed injury. To top it all off, tight ends coach Casey Woods left to become the offensive coordinator at SMU. Drinkwitz has not yet hired a replacement. As a result, Missouri's tight end corps currently consists of no coach and only one player who has recorded a catch in college in Hea.
Departing: Daniel Parker Jr., Messiah Swinson
Parker caught 41 passes and four touchdowns across his four seasons at Missouri, but his primary impact was as a blocker. Missouri will likely miss him in the ground game. Swinson showed flashes of ability as a receiver but never found consistent playing time.
Returning: Niko Hea, Ryan Hoerstkamp, Gavin McKay
There seems to be a bit of uncertainty surrounding Hea, and whether or not he's present drastically changes the complexion of Missouri's tight end group. Hea has been Missouri's leading receiver from the tight end position across the past two seasons, catching 32 passes for 275 yards and four touchdowns in that span. The nature of his injury and his timetable to return to the practice field have not been made public.
If for some reason Missouri is without Hea for spring practices or even longer, the Tigers would have virtually no experience at tight end. Hoerstkamp played in four games as a true freshman, thus maintaining his redshirt, but did not catch a pass. He played a season-high 36 snaps against Army with Hea out. He will almost certainly be counted on to play more next season. The Tigers also added McKay in the 2021 signing class, but he did not see the field at all during his first year on campus. Instead, it was walk-on Kibet Chepyator who played alongside Hoerstkamp in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Incoming: Max Whisner
Missouri will also have its latest tight end signee on campus for spring practices, as Whisner will enroll later this month. The Lee's Summit product already has SEC size, and considering the lack of experience at the position, he could be in the mix for early playing time. We also expect Missouri to add a tight end via the transfer portal. The top target appears to be California transfer Jake Tonges. Tonges, who began his college career as a walk-on, has started 21 games across the past three seasons. In 11 games this season, he caught 22 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. Even if Missouri doesn't land Tonges, look for the staff to add someone with experience to the roster.
Projected Starter: TBD
Assuming Hea returns to the field next season, he would seem to be the most likely starter. We would expect him to be joined by whoever Missouri adds via the transfer portal in two tight end sets, although that can't be guaranteed without knowing for sure who that player will be and what his strengths are. Regardless of Hea's status or the addition of a transfer, Hoerstkamp, McKay and Whisner should all have a chance to compete for regular playing time. Hoerstkamp figures to have a slight head start in that competition due to his playing time this season, but we're not counting the other two out yet.
Spring Practice storyline to watch: There's so much uncertainty at the position right now that it's difficult to zero in on one storyline. But no matter what the personnel in the tight end room looks like and who coaches the position, it will be interesting to see which of the three aforementioned young players earns the coaching staff's trust and positions himself to take on a regular role next season.
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