With the deadline for underclassmen to declare for the 2019 NFL Draft come and gone, Missouri was one of a handful of SEC teams that were hit rather lightly in the departure category.
Missouri’s lone departure came in the way of running back Damarea Crockett, who left the TIgers after three years, 2389 total yards and 21 touchdowns. That was a surprise but maybe not completely unexpected, given the status of running backs in the NFL (CJ Anderson just ran for 123 yards in a playoff game, for God’s sake).
The bigger surprise was when Albert Okwuegbunam decided to return for his redshirt junior seaason. Projections aren’t the end-all, be-all, but it certainly seemed like Okwuegbunam would be a top-three round pick — some projections had him even going in the first round. With a shoulder injury that cut his redshirt sophomore year short, it seemed like the NFL would be the decision for Missouri’s talented tight end.
But no more hypotheticals. Crockett is gone; Okwuegbunam remains.
Which will have the bigger impact for 2019?
We already knew one thing, for sure, going into next season: Larry Rountree will be The Man in Missouri’s backfield. He’s done enough over his first two years on campus to deserve to be the featured back in what will still be a rotation. Rountree is the SEC’s second-leading returning rusher (trailing Vanderbilt’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn) with 1,216 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Even with the emergence of Tyler Badie, though, Crockett’s departure will be felt. With a Rountree-Crockett-Badie backfield, Missouri knew what it had with each running back. Crockett’s departure means a heavier workload for Rountree and Badie, or — most likely — a third back (Simi Bakare? Anthony Watkins?). Missouri has talent, but now there’s uncertainty and less to rely on, which can be especially important considering Missouri has a bigger transition to make at quarterback.
Okwuegbunam’s return gives Kelly Bryant a proven receiving threat to utilize, which is all the more important with no Emanuel Hall. In his only full year as a starter at Clemson, Bryant didn’t necessarily utilize the tight end often — TE Milan Richard caught 18 passes for 210 yards and one touchdown in 2017. However, that’s not all on Bryant, as Richard led Clemson’s tight ends in receptions in 2018 with six, despite having Trevor Lawrence as the starting quarterback for 11 games.
Surely, Derek Dooley will scheme to get the ball to Okwuegbunam. It’s also probably a boon for Bryant that his two leading returning receivers are Okwuegbunam and Johnathon Johnson — not similar in stature but two guys are work well getting the ball on short-to-intermediate passes and working from there.
But there’s a very real chance that Okwuegbunam’s numbers won’t look that dissimilar from his output the last two years. If he stays healthy, a 60-reception, 700-plus yard year might be the top-end.
The bigger impact, however, is what Okwuegbunam does to the players around him. Crockett was a very solid running back, but Okwuegbunam is a mismatch wherever he lines up. He also makes Missouri’s offense versatile and deceiving when he’s on the field. That will free up space for Johnson, for Jalen Knox, even for Rountree and Missouri’s running game.
If Crockett came back, he may have put up over 1,000 yards rushing. He was trending that way before his injury in 2018, after all. Okwuegbunam may not put up gaudy numbers in 2019, but his return means more for the offense and the statistical output of his teammates, as well as the comfort level of Missouri’s new starting quarterback.