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The biggest impact freshman for Mizzou may be a diamond in the rough

Many will point to Travion Ford or Dominic Lovett as the guys to watch, but based on need, freshman TE Gavin McKay is the man to watch.

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Nearly every great college football team has received unexpected contributions from a freshman phenom. Florida State had Jameis Winston in 2013, Texas A&M had Johnny Football in 2012, and LSU kept its “DBU” pipeline alive with Derek Stingley Jr. in 2019. For a team to truly be elite, guys that were not expected to play much have to step up and own larger roles.

The Missouri Tigers have a roster with plenty of young potential this upcoming season, but the freshman that may end up being that surprise player for Mizzou is Gavin McKay (no he will not win a Heisman like some of the guys above did, I know).

Albert Okwuegbunam was the last great receiving threat the Tigers had at tight end. Albert O was a monster paired with Drew Lock, as he dominated the red zone and could win any jump ball thrown his way, exemplified by his 23 career TDs. Just imagine Connor Bazelak with a weapon like that.

SEMO v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The returning tight ends do have their strengths. Niko Hea and Daniel Parker, Jr. bring experience and quality blocking ability to the table, and have shown that they can be effective in the passing game. Still, I do not know of an SEC defense that would fear either of upperclassmen dicing them up downfield.

Enter Gavin McKay.

One of two 3-star tight end recruits that Eli Drinkwitz reeled in during the 2021 recruiting cycle, McKay hails from Memphis, TN. The 6’4”, 219 lb. hybrid played some wide receiver for Memphis University School in high school and posted nearly 1,000 receiving yards and 8 TDs in only 22 career games.

His tape reveals the potential he has to split out wide in college. His long strides make it look as if he is gliding down the field, and he is adept at utilizing that large frame to box out defenders and win jump balls.

What might be the most surprising aspect of his game, however, is his athleticism. McKay made a living off of diving catches and amazing sideline grabs thanks to his great hands and long legs.

When most tight ends get the ball in the open field, it results in maybe three to four extra yards. McKay is not most tight ends. He’s got the speed and strength to shake off defenders in space and make teams pay if they choose to play off of him.

People also often forget, Eli Drinkwitz is a tight end guy. He coached tight ends for Boise State in 2014, and was the offensive coordinator for the Broncos in 2015. During those two years, tight end Jake Roh had a breakout freshman campaign (408 yards, 2 TDs) for the Fiesta Bowl champs, and proceeded to follow that up with a similar sophomore campaign. Roh would go on to be a 4-year starter (injuries derailed his junior season), and some credit for his development does belong to Drinkwitz.

Following that, Coach Drinkwitz would move on to become the OC at NC State, and his success with a certain tight end there is well-documented.

Similar to McKay, Jaylen Samuels was a hybrid that could split out wide or come off the line. He was a matchup nightmare for the Wolfpack thanks to his speed, as no linebacker could hang with him. Samuels would appear all over the field for Drinkwitz: in the slot, out wide, off the line, and even in the backfield as a rushing threat.

Under Drinkwitz, Jaylen Samuels had over 1,500 all-purpose yards and 29 total TDs on his way to becoming a fifth round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

North Carolina v North Carolina State Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

This is a bold claim and obviously not backed up yet, but Gavin McKay is essentially a mix of Jaylen Samuels and Albert O. Slightly shorter and much lighter than Okwuegbunam but still able to be an elite red zone receiver, and somewhat slower than the speedy Samuels but still able to make magic happen in the open field.

I can certainly see Drinkwitz having a field day with his versatility. He will have to make an impression in fall camp to see excess playing time over the veterans, but in obvious passing situations (or when Bazelak catches fire and Mizzou opts to let him sling it for a game) we should see McKay get his chance in a four or five receiver formation. And with Keke Chism being the only comparably large target Mizzou has, McKay should have chances to make an impact.

In the long-term, if McKay wants to be a starter and major contributor, he will have to gain some weight and improve his blocking. The tape shows that he is not afraid to get his hands dirty and battle in the trenches, but in the SEC, 219 lbs. is going to get mauled at the line. He does not need to be the monstrous 255 lbs. like his predecessor Albert O was, but putting on some muscle to be able to block up front and take hits over the middle will be essential to his development.

The upside is immense for McKay, and I am eager to see how Drinkwitz uses him within his offense in 2021 and beyond. We may be comparing his progression to that of the previously mentioned Roh or Samuels when his senior years rolls around.

So, names like Travion Ford, Mookie Cooper, and Dominic Lovett stole the spotlight for Missouri’s 2021 class, but Gavin McKay may be the name we all remember when things are said and done.