COLUMBIA – Missouri offensive coordinator Josh Henson started devising his plan for tight end Eric Waters in spring practice, but it wasn't until fall camp when it really started to sink in for the senior.
Henson called Waters into his office to talk about what had transpired through spring practice and up to the beginning of camp. The first-year offensive coordinator didn't beat around the bush. He hadn't seen enough from Waters and wasn't afraid to let him know.
Who: Missouri at Ole Miss
Where: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss.
When: 6:45 p.m., Saturday
"I don't see the fire of blocking in your eyes," Henson said to Waters.
In an instant, everything changed for Waters. He came to Missouri on the heels of a long line of successful, pass-catching tight ends. From Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker in 2007 and 2008 to Michael Egnew more recently, Missouri tight ends have traditionally caught a lot of passes and gotten national recognition for what they do.
Waters has hardly gotten any recognition outside of Missouri's locker room for what he's done for the 9-1 Tigers in 2013. In 10 games, Water has caught four passes for 50 yards and one touchdown.
"That's not even my main focus," Waters said.
Instead, he's become a big part of the Tigers' running game.
"He’s turned into a very, very good blocker," coach Gary Pinkel said.
Unlike past years, Missouri's tight ends have not played detached from the line of scrimmage as often in Henson's version of the Missouri spread offense. Instead, Waters has been asked to be an in-line blocker. Since meeting with Henson in fall camp, Waters has swallowed his pride and embraced an entirely new role in his final season of college football.
"I kind of changed everything around in terms of how I approached football in general," Waters said. "I went from more of a pass catcher first, finesse guy, to a gritty, in your face, I’m going to drive you to the whistle blows kind of guy."
Missouri's offense has noticed the difference. Alabama is the only team in the Southeastern Conference with more rushing yards than the 2,358 yards Missouri has accumulated.
"He’s added an extra dimension to our offense that, quite frankly, we haven’t had in the past," Henson said.
The extra dimension has opened things up for Missouri's talented group of wide receivers to make plays on the outside. Three Tiger wide receivers have more than 500 receiving yards this season.
"He’s done such a great job blocking that teams are feeling like they have to go man-to-man or one-on-one with us on the edge," Henson said. "We’re running the football so well when he’s in there that we’re getting one-on-one shots down the field. I’m just really proud of how he’s embraced this role. We have a lot of guys who are unselfish on this football team this year."
For Waters, being unselfish hasn't been an issue. He takes pride in how the team ranks running the football and isn't concerned with how often the ball is thrown to him. His reasoning is simple: Missouri is winning.
"You embrace everything that comes your way, no matter what it is," Waters said. "As long as we’re winning, I don’t feel any differently in my heart. I just want to win."
Despite Waters' new attitude, Henson can't help but feel bad. He has a 260-pound tight end who can run and catch just as well as he can block, and yet his role in the passing game has been almost nonexistent. Part of it has to do with how many options Missouri has at wide receiver, but Henson takes full blame for Waters' lack of involvement and doesn't have an excuse.
"I’d like to have gotten the ball to him more at this point, to tell you the truth," Henson said. "I think we want to use everybody as much as we can and make them defend every guy on the field. Put that on me. I just haven’t gotten the ball to him enough."
Waters insists he and Henson are still talking about ways to get him involved on a weekly basis, but it just isn't something Waters is stressing over. He's not going to complain about the lack of passes coming his way or even care about his receiving statistics, which resemble numbers the Missouri tight ends of old may have collected in a single game.
On winning teams, some players have to fade into the background and be unselfish. Not everyone can catch the game-winning touchdown, but everyone has a role to fill. Coaches consider Waters' role as crucial as any on the team, even if not everyone takes notice of the tight end who isn't catching many passes.
"Getting the ball is an added bonus to the job that I’m already doing, which is helping us be successful in the run game," Waters said.
When people look back at Missouri's 2013 season, Waters' name won't be the first to come to mind. He knows it. Waters also understands how valuable his extra attention to blocking has been, not only for Missouri this season, but for his personal football future. It's one thing Waters has over the All-American tight ends who have came through Missouri before him and gone on to the NFL.
"Just having that one aspect of something they didn’t really do too much when they were here," Waters said. "And to go three years before this I’ve been catching passes and running routes every single day, so that’s not something that really concerns me."
Henson isn't concerned about Waters catching passes, either. He's seen the improvement he's made in all areas of his game and recognizes how much of an asset he could be in the passing game.
Waters may even get to show the rest of the nation what he can do as a pass-catcher in Missouri's final two games of the season.
"I bet Eric will make his contribution here before the season’s over," Henson said.
Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.