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What happened to Missouri’s #TightEndPassGame?

Missouri used to be ‘Tight End U.’ Is that likely to return under Eli Drinkwitz?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 South Carolina at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Remember the #TightEndPassGame? The Tigers used to be Tight End U’, but the only recent tight end that was able to thrive at Mizzou was Albert Okwuegbunam.

Missouri had nine individual seasons in which a tight end finished with at least 400 yards between 2005 and 2011 (Martin Rucker x3, Chase Coffman x4 and Michael Egnew x2). The Tigers have had just two such season (both by Okwuegbunam) in more than a decade since.

So, what happened? Where has the tight end production gone, and is it likely to return?

In a word, well, no.

Missouri’s lack of a tight end passing game is due to a number of factors. First of all, the Tigers haven’t had the same talent at the position they once did. It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw the ball to the likes of Rucker, Coffman, Egnew or Okwuegbunam more than 50 times in a season. No offense to some of the other players who have started for the Tigers at tight end in recent seasons, but they have not been the same level of pass catchers.

That last piece of the puzzle appears to be changing. Ryan Hoerstkamp, Max Whisner, Brett Norfleet and Whit Hafer have been early in-state recruiting priorities at the tight end position in the past few recruiting classes. Talent alone might not be enough to add production to the mix.

Talent plus opportunity equals production, and opportunity is something that has been lacking for tight ends in Eli Drinkwitz’s offense.

Drinkwitz’s has spent nine seasons as a play-caller at the power five level. He’s had one tight end finish with at least 40 catches, 400 yards or four touchdowns in a single season. That player? NC State “tight end” Jaylen Samuels in 2016. Samuels being listed as a tight end is a bit of a misnomer. He’s listed at 5-foot-11, 228 pounds and he played running back for the Steelers in the NFL. The only reason he didn’t do so at all times for NC State is because they had Matt Dayes and Nyheim Hines to carry the load at running back. Samuels lined up as an “H-Back” and served as a Swiss army knife in the Wolfpack’s offense.

Tight Ends in Eli Drinkwitz Offense

Year: School: Player: Catches: Yards: Touchdowns:
Year: School: Player: Catches: Yards: Touchdowns:
2013 Arkansas State Darion Griswold 24 312 3
2015 Boise State Jake Rush 33 357 1
2016 NC State Jaylen Samuels* 55 565 7
2017 NC State Cole Cook 1 29 0
2018 NC State Cary Angeline 9 169 1
2019 Appalachian State Henry Pearson 8 75 0
2020 Missouri Niko Hea 14 130 2
2021 Missouri Niko Hea 18 145 2
2022 Missouri Tyler Stephens 5 54 1

If you remove Samuels’ outlier “tight end” production from 2016, Drinkwitz’s top pass-catcher listed at tight end have combined for 116 receptions for 1,320 yards and 11 touchdowns in his nine years as a play-caller. To put that in perspective, Rucker and Coffman combined for more receptions, yards and touchdowns in 2007 than Drinkwitz’s tight ends have combined for in his nine years as a play-caller.

Good play-callers adapt their offense to their personnel, and I have no doubt Drinkwitz would incorporate his tight end more if he had a talent such as Brock Bowers. That being said, finding a Bowers talent is incredibly difficult to find. I don’t expect the #TightEndPassGame to return to Mizzou any time in the near future, probably not until Mizzou recaptures the thrown as ‘Tight End U.’