COLUMBIA, Mo. — Albert Okwuegbunam shares the Southeastern Conference lead for tight ends in touchdown catches, with six, but lately he’s not living up to preseason expectations that he’d contend for All-American honors. Through eight games, he’s caught 18 passes for 250 yards, well short of last year’s pace when he caught 43 for 466 yards in just nine games before a broken scapula sidelined him for good.
Missouri’s last game was the junior’s low point: In the Tigers’ 29-7 loss to Kentucky, Okwuegbunam was targeted just twice and didn’t catch either pass, snapping a streak of 19 consecutive games with a reception. It was his first game without a catch since Nov. 11, 2017 (against Tennessee).
Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley spread the blame for the tight end’s production shortage.
“I think it’s three things,” Dooley said after Tuesday’s practice. “It’s (play) design, by me. I think it’s on him to execute better. And it’s on the quarterback to throw him the ball. It’s a fair question because we shouldn’t be going out there and not throwing the ball to 81. So, we all got to do better. I got to maybe create more and give it to him. And he’s got to get open and make the play when we do throw it to him. And the quarterback’s got to deliver the ball.”
Missouri coach Barry Odom dispelled a comment made during the SEC Network broadcast of the Kentucky game that Okwuegbunam’s fitness was a reason he wasn’t playing as many snaps. The tight end was on the field for 50 of MU’s 63 plays at Kentucky.
“He’s in as good a shape as he’s ever been,” Odom said. “I think he’s in really good playing shape.”
“There’s times that we go personnel grouping, whether it’s 10 (one running back, no tight ends) or 12 (one back, two tight ends) or 11 (one back, one tight end), and Albert doesn’t go consecutive seven or eight plays for that reason,” Odom added. ”But we want and are trying to get him in the game and targeted as many times as possible.”
Opposing defenses have focused their coverages on Okwuegbunam, and in those cases, Odom said he doesn’t want to force passes his direction, like Kelly Bryant tried at Vanderbilt when he threw into double coverage in the end zone, resulting in an interception.
Okwuegbunam always has been a lethal red-zone threat, with 16 of his 23 career touchdowns coming on plays from inside the 20-yard line. This year, he has six of MU’s 12 catches in the red zone, but he’s barely a factor outside the opponent’s 20: Okwuegbunam has just 12 of the team’s 151 receptions outside of the red zone. That’s less than 8 percent.
“If I were trying to defend our offense, I would kind of do what some of those guys are doing,” Odom said. “I would try to take away 81. As much as we all want him to have the ball — and I’m leading the pack on that — if it’s not there, we can’t force the throw.”
“I’d love to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to want to get Albert 12 touches this week,’” Odom added, “but a lot of that’s dictated on what they’re doing on the other side of the ball.”
Okwuegbunam has Georgia’s attention heading into Saturday’s game in Athens, Ga. Last year, Okwuegbunam caught a career-high nine passes for 81 yards against Georgia.
“I think back to last year, he was probably the toughest match-up I thought we had,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart told reporters Monday in Athens. “Last year, seems like he stuck out more in that game plan. He’s a good player. They convinced him to stay (in college). He’s done a good job this year being more of a complementary football player than being just a receiving tight end.”
McCann down, not out
Tucker McCann, owner of the SEC’s busiest right leg, has mastered two of his three jobs. He’s been one of the country’s best kickoff specialists, ranking third nationally in touchback percentage with 47 of his 50 kickoffs going for touchbacks (94%). That leads the SEC. As a first-year punter, he’s sixth in the conference in punting average at 43.8 yards. That’s on pace for the seventh-best average in team history and just off Vince Sebo’s single-season record of 45.0 yards, set in 1996.
Field goals have been another story for McCann. After making all four of his attempts against Mississippi, on Oct. 12, he’s gone 0 for three in the last two games — against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, both losses. For the season, he’s made 11 of 17 attempts. Five of his seven misses have been of 45 yards or longer, but only seven Power Five teams have missed more field goals.
For now, Odom is going to let the senior kicker sort out his problems without losing his job.
“I’m really confident in Tucker and I have been for a long time,” Odom said. “You look at the things that he’s done in the kickoff game and in the punt game and he’s been way above average for us. . . . My trust in Tucker in walking out there and kicking a field goal is still really high. He’s a really tough competitor, and I know he’s going to bounce back and have a great November.”
McCann enters the Tigers’ final four regular-season games with 338 career points, good for third place on the team’s career list. That’s 24 points behind all-time leader Jeff Wolfert, MU’s kicker from 2006-08, and 17 points behind Andrew Baggett, MU’s kicker from 2012-15.
Early start for Florida game
After the longest stretch away from home for any Power Five team this season, Mizzou finally comes back to Columbia next week to host No. 10 Florida for an 11 a.m. kickoff on CBS (KMOV, Channel 4 in St. Louis). With MU’s Nov. 29 game at Arkansas set for a 1:30 p.m. start on CBS, that leaves the Nov. 23 home game against Tennessee as Mizzou’s only game without a starting time. Available spots for the Tigers’ final home game are 2:30 p.m. (CBS), 6 p.m. (ESPN) and 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network).
When the Tigers host Florida on Nov. 16, it will mark 35 days since the Tigers’ last home game on Oct. 12, the longest stretch away from home of any team in the five major conferences. Ball State, Northern Illinois and Kent State, all members of the Mid-American Conference, also have five-week gaps between home games this year.
For the first time this season, Odom puts his robust November record on the line. The fourth-year coach is 10-2 in November games, including nine straight victories going back to the 2016 season finale. In those nine wins, the Tigers outscored their opponents 375-181 and scored at least 40 points five times. However, of those nine defeated foes, only three played in bowl games and only two finished with winning records: 2016 Arkansas (7-6) and 2018 Florida (10-3). The other seven finished a combined 24 games under .500.
• Running back Dawson Downing is one of 83 nominees for the Burlsworth Trophy for the country’s most outstanding player who began his career as a walk-on. Downing is MU’s third-leading rusher with 213 yards and a touchdown. Former Mizzou offensive guard Max Copeland was a finalist for the award in 2013.
• Running back Larry Rountree III needs 45 yards to move past Darrell Wallace for sixth place on MU’s career rushing list. Another 209 yards and Rountree will pass Henry Josey for fifth place and become Mizzou’s most prolific rusher since moving to the SEC. Former quarterback Brad Smith and running backs Zack Abron, Brock Olivo and Devin West occupy the top four spots, respectively.
• Linebacker Nick Bolton leads the SEC in tackles per game with 9.1.