Two catches were all Albert Okwuegbunam needed to make an impact.
The redshirt junior tight end hauled in a pair of touchdowns — his only receptions of the game — from Kelly Bryant as Missouri trounced West Virginia 38-7 in the Tigers’ home opener.
“It was a really fun day for me, just to be out there and score, put up good numbers for the offense,” Okwuegbunam said.
The first time Okwuegbunam was targeted, he dropped a pass from Bryant on the team’s second drive, which eventually stalled out.
But he made up for it. His first catch of the game was a beauty. Bryant floated one toward the end zone to Okwuegbunam, who was in single coverage, and the tight end made an over-the-shoulder grab and stayed inside the pylon for a touchdown. It put Missouri up 10-0.
“It’s awareness, knowing where I was on the field, making sure I get my feet in bounds, and the rest took care of itself,” Okwuegbunam said about his first touchdown of the season.
In the second quarter, Bryant side-stepped a pass rusher and found Okwuegbunam over the middle for a 16-yard touchdown. It was his second and final catch of the game, but they were certainly enough for the Tigers, who cruised the rest of the way.
In the team’s opening game against Wyoming a week ago, Okwuegbunam didn’t make a big impact. He had three catches for 72 yards but also dropped a ball that looked like a fumble. Fortunately for him, the play was ruled an incomplete pass.
On Saturday, his teammates thought he looked more engaged.
“I saw him mentally locked in, ready to go, physically focused, and that was just the regular Albert O to me,” said fellow tight end Daniel Parker Jr. “That’s who he is game in and game out.
Receiver Barrett Banister agreed with that sentiment.
“I saw an Albert that was energized, ready to play,” Banister said. “That’s a preseason All-American. That’s a guy you’ve got to rely on to go make big plays for you. Whenever he does that for you, it really energizes your team and it puts defenses in a bind.”
Energy is something the coaches emphasized in the lead-up to the West Virginia game, Okwuegbunam said.
“We had a lot of guys on the sideline with good energy from the jump, and I think that definitely helped our team,” he said.
What also helps a team is a 6-foot-5, 255-pound tight end who can make athletic catches over defenders.
West Virginia head coach Neal Brown said after the game that he knew Okwuegbunam would be difficult to defend.
“He’s a tough matchup for us,” Brown said. “And he’s going to be a tough matchup for maybe (everyone) except one or two teams they play the rest of the way.”
Going forward, Missouri will need Okwuegbunam to continue to produce. He is looked at as a focal point of the Tigers’ offense.
“We need that every week,” Odom said about Okwuegbunam’s performance. “We don’t just want one of them. They need to keep coming.”
Okwuegbunam missed the end of last season with a shoulder injury, as well as most of fall camp with a knee injury. He saw a lot of playing time against Wyoming, and was a key part of the offense against West Virginia.
“I feel really good, coming into this week,” Okwuegbunam said. “They had a lot of game plan for me. We all executed well as an offense.”
If Okwuegbunam wants to have the great season projected for him, his relationship with Bryant will be the linchpin.
“It’s all about trust,” Okwuegbunam said after the game. “I feel like after my performance today, it just boosts the trust even more than what it was.”
Okwuegbunam might be the best tight end in the country, if the projections are to be believed. His two-touchdown performance on Saturday is a piece of evidence in support of that claim. What comes next?
“Albert is a great player,” Odom said. “We’ve got to have great consistently.”
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.