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Tigers get ready for fall football

Tight end Daniel Parker practices Sunday, August 4, 2019, at the Missouri Tigers' Kadlec practice field in Columbia, Mo. (Photo by J.B. Forbes, jforbes@post-dispatch.com)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — After filling a role on the fly as a makeshift tight end last year, Missouri’s Daniel Parker Jr. had to make up his mind this past offseason. Would he return to his roots as a defensive lineman or build on his surprising success on offense?

Actually, there was never a decision.

“Not even close,” he said. “I was sold.”

Parker would stay a tight end, but not the kind of tight end he became in 2018. It was this time last year in preseason camp when the offensive staff borrowed the freshman from the defense to become another blocker for the running game. That would be Parker’s job — and he did it better than anyone could have anticipated. He even caught the occasional pass, including a touchdown against Vanderbilt. He was named to the Southeastern Conference’s All-Freshman Team.

But Parker’s ambitions didn’t end there.

He committed to a better diet this offseason. He added strength and cut fat. He learned how to run routes and focused on catching the ball cleanly, “all the way to the tuck,” as tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile tells his charges.

The result? Last week, Parker 2.0 reported to preseason camp in the best shape of his life. After arriving at 270 pounds last year, he’s down to 247. He trimmed his body fat from 23 percent to 12.

On the field, he’s no longer a glorified offensive lineman. After catching six passes last year — all coming in a four-game November stretch after starting tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was lost for the season — Parker expects to be a factor in the passing attack this year.

“I feel like I can be a game-changer,” he said. “I can help this team in a lot of ways more than just blocking. I can’t wait.”

“He’s out here and making plays in the pass game that nobody would have really expected,” Okwuegbunam said.

Ofodile, a former Mizzou tight end who played the position in the NFL, watched Parker transform his body this offseason and dedicate himself to becoming a more complete player at the position.

“He went from a high school D-lineman and O-lineman combo guy who never ran a route and never (touched) a ball in games other than maybe a fumble recovery to being a tight end last year,” Ofodile said. “As far as the route-running side, he just hadn’t had time to really work on that craft. But he’s a true competitor. He wants to be great. ... If he can also be a really skilled pass-catcher, it completely changes what he is and what he can do for us.”

Parker was an all-state basketball player at Blue Springs High, and it was on the court where Ofodile could see traces of an athlete who might excel catching passes in football.

“Attacking a defender that’s guarding the basket is not a lot different than attacking a defender (in football),” Ofodile said. “Instinctually, it makes sense, but I was not expecting him to pick it up so quickly. He’s done a really good job of upgrading his route-running and his pass-catching. It’s so exciting to see him add that dimension to his game.”

The weight loss and polished routes don’t mean Parker has gone soft this offseason. He’s still a blocker at heart.

“No, no, no. Trust me, I like to put people in the dirt,” he said. “That’s my first obligation right there.”

After Wednesday’s full-pads practice, Parker listed his favorite block of his rookie year. Two of them actually, both in Missouri’s 38-17 win at Florida.

“I can’t remember his name, but he was number 99,” he said, referring to All-SEC pass-rusher Jachai Polite, a third-round pick of the New York Jets. “I literally just took him and threw him in the dirt. And I was like, wow, this is a great feeling. I want to do this for a long time.”

Also that day, as Parker recalled, he pulled from his stance along the line and provided the lead block on Larry Rountree’s game-opening touchdown run.

Now working under Ofodile, who last season coached the team’s wide receivers, Parker expects to unleash a new highlight catalog.

“People thought I was a beast last year,” Parker said. “But he’s brought out a different animal in me.”

Before he became an integral part of Missouri’s offense, Parker was part of the infamous “Tiger Ten,” a collection of high-profile in-state targets in the 2018 recruiting class. In February 2017, Barry Odom’s staff arranged for all 10 high school juniors to visit campus on the same day. The group included St. Louis standouts Trevor Trout (Chaminade), Michael Thompson (Parkway North) and Ronnie Perkins (Lutheran North). By national signing day, the Tiger Ten became a party of one. Trout picked Southern California. Thompson and Perkins went to Oklahoma. The rest scattered elsewhere. Only Parker chose the home-state school.

Parker said he occasionally thinks about that weekend. He still has videos on his phone of Trout and Thompson from the visit. Perkins had a strong freshman year for the Sooners, but the rest either took a redshirt, got hurt or played sparingly.

Then there’s Parker. He got to wrestle Gators in The Swamp.

“I feel like I had a lot of success being the only guy that came here,” he said. “And I feel like more of them should have came here to have success. But you can’t write everyone’s story for them.”

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Dave Matter is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.