Welcome back to another season of Missouri football at Rock M Nation. Like every season, we’ll be running down the list of position groups, previewing each one with members of our football coverage team. You can find links to all pieces in the series here.
As fate would have it, Kelly Bryant’s premiere passcatcher this season is not a wide receiver - it’s none other than Mr. First Team All-SEC, Albert Okwuegbunam. How does Albert Okwuegbunam open up Missouri’s offense, and what do they lose when he’s not on the field?
Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: Albert O is among the best red zone threats in the country. Did you know in his career, one of every four passes caught by Albert O is converted for a touchdown? It’s true. He has 72 career receptions and 17 career touchdowns. There are only five power-five players with more touchdown receptions than Albert O over the last two seasons, and four of them either graduated or left early for the NFL after the 2018 season. The other is CeeDee Lamb, a projected first round pick at Oklahoma.
So, yeah, Albert O. He’s pretty good.
What does Missouri lose when he’s off the field? Arguably its only proven commodity in the passing game not named Jonathon Johnson. Okwuegbunam will serve as a comfort blanket for Kelly Bryant. It’s a luxury few in all of college football are lucky enough to enjoy.
Tim Bussen, Staff Football Analyst: During Emanuel Hall’s series of absences last year, Dooley experimented with moving Okwuegbunam around to make him primary receiver more often. On several third downs, Albert O aligned as outside receiver to the boundary and was targeted on fades. This suggests to me that, at the time, Dooley didn’t have confidence in his young outside receivers to consistently beat man coverage. Unless Jonathan Nance or one of the young guys emerge at the outside positions this season, Dooley will need to rely heavily on his All-American candidate to fill that role once again.
Terry Dennis, Staff Football Columnist: There is no denying that Albert O is a physical presence all his own. He has the intangibles— particularly at his size, combined with his speed, hands, athleticism, and field recognition— that make him an utter nightmare to defend, let alone plan for.
With the running game, he has the ability to create space for runners, while attracting attention to whichever side he lines up on, whether standing up or with his hand in the turf. It becomes a problem for most defenses, as his presence on the field alone is enough to over-pursue a plan to take him completely out of the game as arguably Mizzou’s most talented returning playmaker. All the extra attention allows Mizzou to utilize a dynamic, quick-thinking QB like Bryant, who can hurt with his arm, and has the ability to improvise. No doubt this camp is critical — if these two can develop chemistry and work on the same page, they form a duo that will create quite the highlight reel.
Taking Albert O off the field offers less security in 3rd down and must-win situations, yet proven playmakers like Jalen Knox, Johnathon Johnson, and last year’s leader in yards per reception, Kam Scott, get the opportunity to flourish. In fact, the presence of Albert O on the field with any one or two of these guys would put any defensive coordinator in a difficult position in choosing how to spread the coverage.
He doesn’t have the reputation as many of his peers before him, but Johnathon Johnson has an outside shot at becoming one of Mizzou’s all-time receiving leaders. How important is Johnson in his final year as a Tiger?
Brandon Kiley: Johnathon Johnson’s career has been underrated in a lot of ways because of his first impression. As a redshirt freshman, he dropped too many passes— some in critical situations— and many Mizzou fans never really changed their opinion of him.
The truth is he’s one of the most productive Mizzou receivers in program history. That doesn’t mean he’s among the best, but he’s going to post numbers among the elite. Johnson currently sits at 124 career receptions for 1,896 yards. He needs 58 receptions to catch Jeremy Maclin for sixth all-time. Another 34 receptions and he ties J’Mon Moore for seventh.
The yards are even more interesting. Johnson only needs 882 yards to tie Danario Alexander as the program’s all-time receiving yards leader.
How likely is that? Probably not very.
Missouri has averaged around 75 plays per game the past few seasons. They run the ball around 40 times per game. I would expect an even higher run percentage in 2019 given the strength of the team.
If Kelly Bryant is only throwing the ball 25-30 times per game, and he’s completing around 65 percent of those passes, that’s only 15-18 completions per game. It’s just difficult to see a way for a slot receiver who averaged around 12 yards per reception getting enough targets to be a real threat at breaking these records.
But that shouldn’t minimize his importance. Johnson emerged as one of the team’s go-to targets on third down a year ago. When the Tigers find themselves in a 3rd and medium situation, the first always seems to be Johnson on a crossing route. I don’t expect that to change in 2019.
Tim Bussen: As mentioned above, we don’t yet know if the Tigers have a genuine deep threat on the outside. If no one breaks out, the role will fall to Johnson. One way Dooley featured Johnson’s speed last year was to have him run the sideline go route from the slot position: see his 86-yard TD reception in the Liberty Bowl. Johnson’s ability to go deep is an essential weapon, and will take some pressure off the guys on the outside.
Terry Dennis: Johnathon Johnson’s last year is his to lose. He has the speed, athleticism, playmaking ability, and the experience to have this be a potentially lucrative breakout season. From a team standpoint, it is important for him to carry that same mindset into his final year, as Mizzou has a great deal riding on veteran leadership in the oncoming seasons. Next to Albert O, Johnson is a player with tremendous pressure on his shoulders, particularly with the potential to have a record-setting year. He is a guy who can certainly handle the pressure, and with the current state of the Mizzou football program, this could very well be his year prove it beyond what he’s already done.
The wide receiving corps is full of potential, but with potential comes question marks. Which receiver could be the key to unlocking a torrid passing attack if they’re on their game?
Brandon Kiley: I’m sure the popular answer to this question among my colleagues will be Jalen Knox, and for good reason. If any of these current receivers have the potential to emerge as a legitimate NFL talent, it’s him.
I’m going to go another route. I’m going with Kam Scott.
This is not going to be the same type of explosive offense we saw with Drew Lock under center. That’s not the type of player Kelly Bryant is. He’s going to connect on shorter passes. It’s going to be more efficient at times, but the explosive nature of the offense is going to change. And that’s where Scott’s importance emerges.
Scott had eight receptions last year. Among them were catches of 70, 44, 41 & 32 yards. If you’re looking for explosive plays, Scott has the potential to provide them.
This is the type of receiver Mizzou needs to go along with the typical slot receiver in Johnathon Johnson, a big tight end working the middle of the field in Albert O, and a prototypical #1 receiver in Jalen Knox. If Scott is able to add a legitimate deep threat on the back side to go along with that talent, Missouri is in good shape.
Tim Bussen: The first two that come to mind are Jonathan Nance, based on his status as the group’s seasoned veteran, and Jalen Knox, based on his experience relative to the other young receivers.
I’m most intrigued, though, by Kam Scott. He’s rangier than Nance and Knox, showed great athleticism on a brilliant touchdown catch against UT Martin, and has serious speed, running past a Florida corner for a TD in The Swamp. Scott’s emergence as a legitimate deep target would make all the receivers better, opening up space for short and intermediate routes.
Terry Dennis: One guy with the potential to unlock the passing game would have to be Kam Scott. He’s young, energetic, lightning fast, and even more so to his credit, he now has experience. He’s one of those best-kept secrets, particularly with the publicity surrounding other pass-catchers on Mizzou’s roster and in the SEC. He even proved it on his first catch as a true freshman. He’s shown spurts of playmaking ability in his first season that certainly raise some good questions surrounding the state of Mizzou’s air attack, and he has the potential to be one of the more talked about threats when he takes the field.
At its current state, this receiving core shows shades of the 2008 crew, featuring Coffman, Maclin, Saunders, and Alexander. Though a completely different set of players, it poses an interesting question as to how these guys can work together and come to their own individually. Most comparably, one might compare Scott’s game to former, yet recent Mizzou receivers like Jerrell Jackson and L’Damian Washington. Kam Scott comes in as that young guy with tremendous potential; great speed, the ability to dissect a defense, and a pretty good route runner for a guy with his experience level. Look for him to answer a lot of questions this season.