Missouri is thin at the wide receiver position. That’s not a secret.
Coach Barry Odom and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley discussed it on National Signing Day in February. Dooley once again stressed the Tigers’ lack of proven talent at the position Tuesday following their first practice of spring training camp.
Heading into 2018 without J’Mon Moore, its leading receiver last season, and just two wideouts who held consistent roles last fall, Missouri’s offense will be forced to be different. Not only will the first-year offensive coordinator be implementing a new system but he’ll be doing so with unknown quantities flanking his offense.
As a result, Dooley and the Tigers will likely look to other parts of the field in order to find effective production next fall. That may involve more pass-catching situations for running backs. It may include more run-pass option opportunities for quarterback Drew Lock. It’ll likely be a combination of a number of things, and Dooley is leaving everything on the table.
“We really need to come out of spring with a good idea of what core runs, throws, run-actions, drop backs, all that stuff we’re going to use,” he said Tuesday. “We’re going to put a lot of that on and then try to hone in what our guys do best and what we feel most comfortable doing, and we can build on that in training camp.”
Missouri’s tight ends will play a role, as well.
Last season the Tigers made good use of their group of tight ends and Lock was able to rely on them in all situations. The triumvirate of Albert Okwuegbunam, who earned All-SEC second team honors, Kendall Blanton and Jason Reese combined for 40 catches, 687 yards and 15 touchdowns. This year, their role could expand even further.
"What’s different? A lot,” Blanton said. “A lot is different, but I can’t reveal too much. Some of it you’ll just have to wait and see.”
The transition from former offensive coordinator Josh Huepel’s system into this new one has been a learning process in the tight ends' room. New routes, schemes and terminology have added slightly to the degree of difficulty. But with the transition, players like Okwuegbunam and Blanton also see a window to receive increased chances on the field.
“There’s a lot of route concepts, a lot of opportunities for us to get involved in the passing game,” Okwuegbunam said. “So I’d say that’s the biggest opportunity right there. It’s just a little more different with a couple of route concepts and not just pop passes.”
Few tight ends around college football were better than Okwuegbunam last year. Playing as a true freshman, Okwuegbunam received plenty of playing time and took advantage, catching 29 passes for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns. He did so operating mainly as a red zone threat, receiving opportunities elsewhere on the field far less often.
With Dooley at the helm, that will be different, and it has the tight ends excited. After a short period working in Dooley’s offense, they know that they’ll not only see increased time on the field but more opportunities in open space.
“Point to somewhere on the field and we’ll be there,” Blanton said. “We’ve got a lot of tight ends that can work well in spaces, I think we should be able to be anywhere on the field if we want to.”
While the tight ends head into 2018 feeling bullish, they know that nothing is set in stone and that opportunities will have to be earned. Despite the lack of established names on the roster at wide receiver and the necessity for performers on the offensive side of the ball, everyone will have to prove themselves. Yes, even Okwuegbunam.
“He (Dooley) has just got to see who his playmakers are, so it’s up to us to go out there and make plays,” Blanton said. “He’ll draw up some stuff and we’ll just have to go make plays. We’ll adjust from there.”
Supervising editor is James Patterson.