The tight end position certainly is not what it once was in the Missouri Tigers football program. Though the Tigers went through an eight-year stretch with elite receiving tight ends that went on to play in the NFL, including Martin Rucker, Chase Coffman, and Michael Egnew, the position has been a bit of an afterthought since Egnew departed and the Tigers moved to the SEC in 2012.
There were a few factors that played into this change. First of all, there was a rather large drop-off in playmaking talent from Egnew to his heir apparent, Eric Waters. In 2012, Mizzou had a 6-foot-6 star wide receiver recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham, who needed to be integrated into the offense in some way as a freshman, so they began to give him snaps in lieu of playing a traditional tight end (if you can even call it that; Missouri’s tight ends were often glorified slot receivers who received very few blocking assignments).
After Mizzou struggled to a 5-7 record in their inaugural SEC season, offensive coordinator David Yost was fired and offensive line coach Josh Henson took over. Henson, a former LSU assistant, modified the offense slightly to put it more in line with what other SEC teams were doing, and that included having a traditional blocking tight end with a hand in the dirt. This created more opportunities for Waters, as well as redshirt freshman Sean Culkin and former walk-on Clayton Echard, who served as a short-yardage blocking specialist. This change did not increase the receiving role of the tight ends, though. Waters caught eight passes for 72 yards and a touchdown, while Culkin caught one pass for six yards.
This year, with Waters having graduated and signed an undrafted free agent contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Culkin and Echard will likely be the two primary players at the position. The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Culkin, who was a highly-regarded recruit out of Florida, has the potential to develop into a very good pass catcher and blocker, but he definitely will need to take a step forward this year. Culkin’s career has been a bit of a disappointment so far, as he was slated to play as a true freshman but got injured near the start of the year, and then he began 2013 as the starter but was later benched in favor of the incumbent Waters. With 6-foot-5 wideouts L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas having graduated and Green-Beckham having been dismissed earlier this year, Culkin may be relied upon more for targets in the endzone and on long jump balls.
Echard, a 6-foot-4, 255-pounder, made some very positive contributions in the running game during his first year of on-field action in 2013. It remains to be seen as to whether he has anything to contribute as a receiver, but he’ll be a nice asset in two-tight end packages.
Redshirt freshman Jason Reese was listed third on the depth chart during the spring. The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder was ranked as the 23rd-best high school tight end in the nation for the 2013 recruiting class, but it appears that he is raw and has some work to do as a receiver. Unless he makes big strides throughout the offseason, don’t expect to see a whole lot of him to begin 2014.
Beyond those three, the team has walk-ons Tyler Hanneke and Austin Ray. Ray, who was formerly on scholarship at the University of Colorado, could be an intriguing guy to keep an eye on. He’s got the talent to be an endzone threat and enough size to be an effective blocker.
Freshmen Kendall Blanton and Grant Jones (son of Tiger running back coach Brian Jones) will also enroll for the fall semester. Both are long and athletic, but they’ll likely need at least one year in the team’s strength training program before they’re ready to contribute on Saturdays.