Prediction: Mizzou will rediscover tight ends
I am surprised someone didn’t put out an Amber Alert for Missouri’s tight ends last season.
Was it those dastardly fellows from Kansas who kidnapped them?
What if I told you there was an unidentified Space Jam type divot at Faurot Field early in the 2013 season, and the Tigers’ tight ends spent the year teaming up with Bugs Bunny in a bizarro football game against the evil versions of Kellen Winsolw, Shannon Sharpe and Mike Ditka?
What if I told you that, on a field in Columbia, Mo., a revolution started with one pitch and catch in fall practice between Maty Mauk and Sean Culkin?
What if I told you — OK, enough with the 30 for 30 voiceover. Missouri’s tight ends didn’t figure into last season’s game plan because the team had a lot of better options.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn’t averse to tight ends catching the football. Martin Rucker caught 84 passes for 834 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007. Chase Coffman caught 90 passes for 987 yards and 10 touchdowns as a tight end at Missouri in 2008, winning the John Mackey Award as the nation’s best at the position. Michael Egnew followed with a 90-catch season of his own in 2010. All three players were consensus All-Americans.
If you’re a Missouri fan and the opening paragraphs of this story took more than a half-second to dismiss as silly drivel, it’s because you remember those years, and you know that Missouri’s starting tight end, Eric Waters, caught just eight passes during the 2013 season.
Missouri got a media mention as “Tight End U” in 2010, while ESPN ranked Missouri third among every school in the country in the 2000s, proclaiming only Miami and Iowa as more worthy of the “Tight End U” moniker.
According to the Columbia Tribune, under first-year offensive coordinator Josh Henson, Missouri lined up without a single tight end on the field for 64.8 percent of its snaps in 2013. Behind Waters, in camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers this fall, the tight ends combined for one reception. That’s single digits as a position group, or less than one-tenth of what Coffman and Egnew managed in their best years. But the tight ends caught just four passes total in 2012.
“I wasn’t given the opportunity like everybody else,” Waters complained to a Pittsburgh paper earlier this year. “Not to down any of those coaches or anybody else, a lot of stuff was handed to people and I was the guy who had to work for everything but it still wasn’t good enough.”
The position group will make a resurgence this season, partly out of necessity as the team attempts to compensate from the loss of most of its best pass-catching targets and partly because the tight ends in 2014 are too talented to ignore.
Darius White, at 6-foot-3, is the tallest of the three receivers expected to lead Missouri in targets in 2014. The top three last year all were taller than White.
Culkin, at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, give Mauk a big target. He got nine targets with the first- and second-team offenses in three fall scrimmages. A touted recruit out of Florida, Culkin broke his finger in 2012 and then fell behind Waters in 2013.
Henson does ask the tight ends to contribute as blockers first. Rucker, Coffman and Egnew (no, that’s not a law firm) rarely got into a three-point stance and blasted opposing linebackers off the ball. But there are opportunities for tight ends to catch passes out of the slot or releasing off the end of the line of scrimmage.
That will happen in 2014, and Culkin will reach double-digit catches if he stays healthy.
Clayton Echard (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) and Jason Reese (6-foot-5, 240 pounds) combined for 10 targets working with the second offense. Kendall Blanton likely will redshirt, but could make a bigger impact as a pass-catcher than all of them in a few seasons.
Based on the distribution of targets in fall camp, the Columbia Tribune’s David Morrison projected the Tigers’ tight ends will get more than 40 targets during the 2014 season. Missouri isn’t going to have another 90-catch tight end, at least not while Henson runs the offense. But Culkin and company surely will combine for more than 20 catches this season.
That kind of modest resurgence will take some pressure off of Mauk and the senior receivers.