Increased tight end production aiding Missouri offense
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) Missouri has a rich history when it comes to the tight end position.
From the days of Kellen Winslow, a consensus all-American taken 13th overall in the 1979 NFL draft, to more recent draft picks like Chase Coffman and Michael Egnew, some of Missouri's greatest pass-catchers have been tight ends. The latest crop wants to restore some luster to the position.
''We all want to be great,'' sophomore Kendall Blanton said. ''I want to be one of the best tight ends in the nation if not the best tight end in the nation. Our tight end group as a whole ... we all are pushing each other.''
It would appear the pushing has paid off and the position is a bright spot in a down year for Missouri (2-5, 0-3 SEC), which hosts Kentucky (4-3, 3-2) on Saturday.
In 2014, Missouri tight ends caught 21 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. Last season, tight ends combined for 33 catches, 279 yards and a touchdown.
This season has been even better: Tight ends Sean Culkin, Jason Reese, Tyler Hanneke and Blanton have combined for 28 catches totaling 321 yards and four scores, 25 percent of the Tigers' receiving touchdowns.
Reese, who has eight catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns in five starts, attributed his improvement to his confidence level.
''If I know what the defense is doing and I'm fully confident in what I know I can do, then that's just going to make my game excel,'' he said.
Blanton's confidence appears to be growing, too.
In the 51-45 loss to Middle Tennessee State last Saturday, Blanton turned heads at Faurot Field with a diving, one-handed touchdown catch. His 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame was fully extended and he maintained possession as he hit the turf, giving the Tigers a 14-13 lead late in the first quarter.
''It was an awesome play he had,'' Culkin said of the 15-yard score. ''It's awesome to see a guy just develop. He's got a lot of raw talent that's starting to be seen on Saturdays.''
Missouri coach Barry Odom joked that Blanton possesses the stature of an offensive lineman, but is pleased with his production at tight end.
''I think he's been a huge upside,'' Odom said. ''He's 6-7 and he's got great skills. He's gotten a lot better over the past couple months.''
Blanton has eight catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns.
''As you can see, he's a physical specimen,'' Reese said of Blanton. ''That guy has been great since the day he stepped on campus. He's been focused. He's been waiting for his chance. I knew once his chance came, he wasn't going to let that go to waste.''
Reese sustained a rib injury against Middle Tennessee State, and his status for the game against Kentucky remains unknown. If he is unable to play, look for Blanton and Culkin to pick up the slack.