COLUMBIA, Mo. — There’s no cause for alarm — yet — but Missouri sure is testing its depth at tight end, a position of strength when preseason camp began two weeks ago.
Albert Okwuegbunam, a preseason All-Southeastern Conference choice and All-American candidate, sat out all of Monday’s practice, the Tigers’ first on-field drills since Saturday’s scrimmage. He didn’t scrimmage Saturday and hasn’t been on the field for many 11-on-11 drills since he left last Monday’s practice because of a sprained right knee. After Monday’s practice, Missouri coach Barry Odom declined to say what specific injury Okwuegbunam was nursing, though his left hamstring was wrapped Monday.
“He’s got a number of things but not anything real serious. So maybe (we’ll) get him back out here a little bit (Tuesday), I hope,” Odom said.
The Tigers are blessed with an experienced and talented backup, but he, too, sat out Monday’s practice. Daniel Parker Jr. rode the exercise bike and did other conditioning drills alongside Okwuegbunam throughout Monday’s two-hour practice. Odom did not disclose Parker’s injury. If this was a game week, Odom said, and the Tigers played Saturday he’s optimistic both would be available.
“So I think we’ll be OK,” he said.
SCALES IN THE MIX
The injuries gave fourth-year junior Brendan Scales a rare chance to work with the starting unit. Once near the bottom of the depth chart, Scales is putting himself in position for his first taste of significant game action.
The last few years haven’t been easy for Scales, who initially committed to Alabama out of Lafayette High then picked Missouri shortly before signing day in 2016.
“It’s patience, frustration, all of that,” he said. “Because, you know, most freshmen come in thinking they’re going to play right away. So did I. But it’s just patience. I wanted to be here and I love the school. There’s nowhere else I want to be.”
If the team’s top two tight ends miss any more time this week, Scales could use the opportunity to carve out a role with the offense as a blocker and receiver. Freshman Niko Hea (CBC) also figures to earn more looks and on Saturday played on the first-team short-yardage package.
“It’s like anything else, whether they’re hurt or not I try to go as hard as I can,” Scales said. “But, yeah, it’s an opportunity. Daniel and Albert can do both blocking and catching. . . . Daniel is more of a blocker. Albert’s more of a catcher. I’m right in the middle.”
After missing Saturday’s scrimmage because of a sore foot, starting slot receiver Johnathon Johnson was back in action Monday with the first unit. Starting safety Tyree Gillespie (hip) took part in some periods but sat out live team drills. Safety Jalani Williams (dental work) was back in the mix. Defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat (sprained elbow) remains sidelined, along with safety Aidan Harrison (leg) and linebacker Jamie Pettway (knee).
With Gillespie limited, junior safety Jordan Ulmer is starting to capitalize with more work on the first unit. Ulmer started the 2017 opener as a freshman but was benched after a rough debut and has since played almost exclusively on special teams.
“He’s grown up,” Odom said. “He’s matured and credit to him on the approach that he’s taken. Because there were times that I didn’t know if he was going to be part of the program. And that’s just being real honest. And he knows it. That was some of the things he was not taking care of academically. He’s got all this ability. He had to look in the mirror a little bit. I’m proud of him, because he has grown up and he has had as good of camp as anybody up to this point. He’s going to help us.”