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Missouri Arkansas Football

Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam against Arkansas during an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 29, 2019 in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

COLUMBIA, Mo. — For the second time in two days, the Missouri football team lost a junior to the NFL draft. This one was expected: Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam won’t return for his senior season and will make himself available for the 2020 draft. He announced his plans on Twitter.

He tweeted the following on Monday: “I’m beyond thankful for my experiences at this outstanding University. I’ve learned so much about the game of football and life over these past 4 years. Through trial and triumph these experiences undoubtedly molded me into the player/man I am today. I am extremely thankful for all my coaches throughout my career so far and their everlasting impact on and off the field. But most importantly I am thankful for my brothers and the extremely tight bonds I’ve formed over these years. Through the ups and downs we’ve always stayed solid and supported each other when at times it felt no one else was and I can’t thoroughly express the gratitude I’ll always have for that.

“Ever since the first time I put on a helmet and shoulder pads playing in the NFL has been my dream. God-willing I’ve been blessed with this opportunity and I have decided to embark on that journey now. I will forgo my last year of eligibility and declare for the 2020 NFL Draft. I’m excited for what the future holds but will always be thankful to Missouri.”

Okwuegbunam has not yet received a draft grade from the NFL draft advisory committee, a source confirmed Monday.

Okwuegbunam had a disappointing 2019 season, finishing with a career-low 26 catches for 306 yards and six touchdowns. He missed the home finale against Tennessee with a shoulder injury. In seven games against Southeastern Conference teams, he caught only 17 passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. He led the team with eight drops and had several costly penalties, including a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct that negated a crucial first down in MU’s loss to Florida.

In 33 career games, he caught 23 touchdowns, second all-time at Mizzou behind only former All-America tight end Chase Coffman's 30 touchdown catches from 2005-08. He finishes his three-year career with 98 catches for 1,187 yards.

Okwuegbunam first committed to Mizzou’s 2016 recruiting class before Gary Pinkel announced his retirement then stuck with the Tigers when Barry Odom was promoted to head coach. After a redshirt season in 2016, the Springfield, Ill., native became an instant hit in Mizzou’s offense and led the SEC with 11 touchdown catches, the most by any tight end in the country. After his Freshman All-America season, Okwuegbunam boosted his receptions from 29 to 43 as a sophomore, even though he missed the season’s final four games with a broken scapula. He still became a finalist for the John Mackey Award, given to the nation’s best tight end.

His first two years prompted preseason All-America buzz heading into this season, but he rarely established a prominent role in the offense. His targets slipped from 58 in nine games last year to 46 in 11 games this year.

On Sunday, junior defensive tackle Jordan Elliott announced plans to leave MU a year early for the NFL draft. 

BAZELAK SUFFERS TORN ACL

Freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee on the play that knocked him out of Friday's 24-20 win at Arkansas, team spokesman Chad Moller confirmed Monday.

Bazelak, who made his first career start in Little Rock, Ark., will undergo surgery next week. It's unclear what his status will be for the start of spring practices under the team's next coaching staff. 

The freshman from Dayton, Ohio, was making his third appearance of the season and put together a few promising drives, completing 7 of 9 passes for 80 yards. He was attempting to scramble for a first down on third-and-long early in the second quarter when he landed awkwardly along the sideline and suffered the knee injury. Taylor Powell played the rest of the game and led the Tigers back from a third-quarter deficit for the win.

Under the NCAA's redshirt rule, Bazelak will preserve his year of eligibility because he played in less than four games, leaving him four full seasons to see the field. In three games this year he completed 15 of 21 passes for 144 yards. 

If he's not recovered in time for the start of the 2020 season, the Tigers will be down to two returning scholarship quarterbacks to compete for the job, Powell and Shawn Robinson, who transferred to MU from Texas Christian University earlier this year. Robinson was required to sit out this season by NCAA transfer rules, but the former Big 12 starter will have a strong shot to win the job next fall. The Tigers also are expected to add Chaminade's Brady Cook, one of the area's top passers this season with 3,194 yards and 33 touchdowns. Cook confirmed over the weekend that he still plans to sign with Mizzou after the team's coaching change. 

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