COLUMBIA, MO. • Christian Holmes had no chance.
Missouri’s 6-foot-1, 200-pound defensive back saw the play developing, as clear as the Wednesday morning sky. He tracked his target into the flat. He sped toward the 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end. He arrived with intent.
Pads are supposed to pop when they are strapped on for the first time during fall camp. This play was no exception. Holmes did everything right. Problem was, it was Holmes who got the worst of the collision.
Welcome to an attempted tackle of Albert Okwuegbunam.
Watching Mizzou’s next great tight end release gracefully from the line of scrimmage before high-pointing a pass with two hands and stopping Holmes cold with a simple shrug of the shoulder offered yet another reminder.
One of the nation’s best plays for the Tigers, and we haven’t yet seen his best.
Not even close.
I realize the suggestion of Okwuegbunam accomplishing even more this season is hard to imagine, but it’s time to get comfortable with the idea.
Shorten Okwuegbunam (pronounced O-coo-WAY-boo-nahm) to “Albert O” if you must. He’s cool with the nickname. But to stiff-arm the full name is to risk missing its importance to him.
Albert Okwuegbunam’s name is his father’s name. First and last.
Albert Okwuegbunam, the father, named his son Albert Chukwueneka Okwuegnunam for a reason.
Okwuegbunam means, “Evil cannot bring us down.”
Chukwueka means, “God has done wonderful for us.”
Albert O? Not to his family members. They call him “Chuks.”
But since his childhood in Springfield Ill., these unfamiliar words have felt funny exiting the mouths of friends, teachers, teammates and coaches.
“Albert O” is easy. It also overlooks the engine that fuels a football force.
Standing at the entrance of a dining hall where countless meals are readied for Mizzou’s scholarship athletes, Okwuegbunam spoke Wednesday of wanting to match the work ethic of the man who shared his name.
“I haven’t done half of what he has,” he said. “I’ve never had a job.”
His father was 19 years old and alone when he moved to America from Onitsha, Nigeria, to study business and create a better life. He did not qualify for financial aid, so he juggled three jobs — at one point making Pizza Hut pies and working part-time at a post office — while paying for classes at University of Illinois-Springfield. He graduated, climbed toward a career as a state auditor, started a family and raised a football-loving son despite knowing only soccer when he arrived in the U.S.
As the son has grown (and grown), his understanding and appreciation of his father’s American success story has only increased. These days, it drives.
“Whenever I need to dig deep, whenever I need to get some motivation, I always think about my dad,” Okwuegbunam said.
Combine that motivation with his gifts, and you come up with an NFL prospect who has scouts drooling. Okwuegbunam is being mentioned along with Iowa’s Noah Fant and Stanford’s Kaden Smith as one of the top three tight ends in college football today. His 11 touchdown receptions last season led tight ends nationally and ranked fourth all-time among Mizzou pass-catchers in a single season.
Attempting to game plan against a tight end like Okwuegbunam “messes with your personnel grouping, because he can split out and create mismatches,” Mizzou defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said. “Albert can even line up (out wide) at X or Z receiver. He’s got that skill set.”
By now, every Tigers player and coach has a favorite Okwuegbunam story, a play or moment when the redshirt sophomore raised the bar.
Quarterback Drew Lock points to a third-and-goal at Arkansas last season. The Tigers trailed the Razorbacks 35-31 with 13 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Okwuegbunam used a flurry of footwork to cross up Arkansas defensive back Kamren Curl, then dived in the corner of the end zone to snag the go-ahead touchdown. Many of his touchdowns were of the wide-open variety. This one was challenged, and crucial.
Kendall Blanton, Mizzou’s other starting tight end, cites the near brawls that used to erupt at practice between Okwuegbunam and starting linebacker Cale Garrett. “They got after each other a couple of times,” Blanton said with a proud grin.
Coach Barry Odom shared this gem.
After a recent workout, Okwuegbunam approached a group of Mizzou defensive backs who were timing themselves in the 40-yard dash. The tight end had spent most of his day running routes at full speed, but he wanted to compete. Exhausted, he was clocked at 4.53 seconds. The fastest time from a tight end at this year’s NFL combine was a 4.54.
“I’ve always been fast,” he said. “People doubt it because of how big I am.”
He’s speeding toward an early departure. Mizzou is already bracing for the likelihood he could be drafted after this season. The Tigers better benefit from his presence while they can.
He has worked on perfecting his routes and beefing up his blocking. After weighing as much as 268 pounds, he’s leaned out without sacrificing strength. New offensive coordinator Derek Dooley plans to make him a bigger part of the game plan, vertically and horizontally. Good idea, considering Okwuegbunam was targeted in only 9.8 percent of Mizzou’s pass attempts last season, and scarcely found outside of the red zone.
“There is an opportunity to get him in a position where he is matched up, physically, in our favor,” Odom said. “Creatively, we have to find ways to continue to do that.”
Those who don’t yet know his name will probably learn it this fall.
Pronouncing it is hard at first. Understanding what it means to him is crucial.