The first Missouri football season of the Eli Drinkwitz era showed both plenty of reasons for optimism as well as room for improvement. The Tigers finished a 10-game, all-SEC schedule with a record of 5-5, including an upset of defending national champion LSU and at one point cracking the College Football Playoff rankings at No. 25. However, the team also dropped its final two games of the season and saw an average margin of defeat of 24 points in its five losses.
In this series, we will go position by position to break down Missouri’s performance in 2020 and look ahead to spring football practices, which should start in March and kick off preparation for the 2021 season. Last week, we examined the wide receiver situation. Today, we shift our attention to the tight ends.
With Albert Okwuegbunam gone to the NFL, Missouri split the playing time at tight end between several players in 2020. Each had their moments, but none was able to make a consistent impact, particularly as a receiver.
Some had hoped Daniel Parker Jr., a converted defensive lineman, would take on a larger role as a pass-catcher with Okwuegbunam gone from the offense. While Parker’s sheer ability to play last season was remarkable after he overcame an offseason eye infection that nearly cost him his playing career, that didn’t end up being the case. Parker, who did miss three games due to injury, caught just eight passes for 37 yards on the season. He continued to be a strong blocker in the running game — his highlight of the season came when he blocked three defenders on one play against Arkansas — and he will likely continue to be valuable in a blocking role, but at this point, it seems unlikely he will ever be a dynamic receiver.
The tight end who wound up getting targeted the most was sophomore Niko Hea. The St. Louis product impressed as a true freshman in 2019 and caught 14 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns last season. He never eclipsed 31 yards in a single game, however, and only had more than two catches in a game one time. Junior Logan Christopherson and sophomore Messiah Swinson saw a bit of action as well. Christopherson served more as a blocker, but he did record the first three catches of his career, one of which went for 37 yards on a fourth down against Tennessee. Swinson played sparingly but caught two balls for 38 yards. Missouri will hope that one of the three above players can take a step forward during a full offseason and provide more consistency as a pass-catcher in 2021.
Returning: Daniel Parker Jr., Niko Hea, Logan Christopherson, Messiah Swinson
While Missouri might have liked more production from its tight ends last season, particularly in the passing game, the good news is all of the scholarship players in the position group are expected back next season. Getting a full offseason to work with Drinkwitz and position coach Casey Woods certainly can’t be a bad thing.
Incoming: Ryan Hoerstkamp, Gavin McKay
Mizzou found its two tight end commits early in the 2020 class and has reason to be optimistic about the upside of both. McKay largely played receiver for his Memphis University School high school squad, so it may take him some time to adjust to blocking at the college level and fill out his frame, but if he’s able to do that relatively quickly, Missouri could certainly use his pass-catching skills. Hoerstkamp, who excelled at both tight end and defensive end for Washington (Mo.) high school, did plenty of blocking in the Blue Jays’ run-heavy offense, but he also caught 18 passes for 333 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior. Hoerstkamp has already enrolled at Missouri and will participate in spring practices, which could give him a head start toward earning early playing time.
Projected Starters: Daniel Parker Jr., Niko Hea
At this point, we haven’t seen or heard anything to suggest much will change from how reps were assigned last season. When Parker was healthy, he and Hea played about evenly, with Hea playing more of a pass-catching role and Parker generally serving as an extra blocker. That’s not to say the two are locks to keep their spots atop the depth chart, however. Expect a healthy offseason competition.
Spring Practice storyline to watch: Can someone take a step forward as a receiver? Missouri’s tight ends just weren’t factors in the passing game for much of last season. Quite a few of their catches seemed to come on designed plays, such as screens, shovel passes and the double-pass to Swinson against Georgia. The Tigers could use someone who can win one-on-one matchups against linebackers or smaller safeties, particularly on third downs or in the red zone. Hea seems to be the most likely player who could fill that role after a real offseason with this coaching staff, but don’t completely sleep on Swinson. At 6-foot-7, he has the physical tools to be a matchup nightmare in the passing game if he can finally put it all together.