It’s a tough task for any Division I college football player to block out all the outside noise.
Multiply the challenge several times for Missouri junior tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.
In stature alone, he’s 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds. Add to that his reputation as one of the best tight ends in the country. Then comes the grind of playing in the Southeastern Conference, where he’s at the top of every opponent’s scouting report.
If that wasn’t enough for the Missouri standout, Okwuegbunam this month was named the consensus first-team All-American tight end by both The Associated Press and CBS Sports.
Okwuegbunam is seen as the frontrunner to win the John Mackey Award, given annually to the best college tight end. He is also one of four tight ends selected to the 2019 Biletnikoff Award Watch List, along with 46 wide receivers, given to the best pass catcher in Division I, regardless of position.
Yet, Okwuegbunam enters the 2019 season with a clear focus on what’s right in front of him.
“I don't control that, that's an opinion. It's a bunch of people that vote on it,” Okwuegbunam said of the national attention he’s received. “I just focus on what I can control and that's making the most out of every opportunity — whether it's making every contested catch, dominating every block, that’s more of what I’m focused on.”
Maintaining that focus couldn’t have been easy for Okwuegbunam over the past year. He’s had a few injury issues since the 2018 season that derailed his progression.
In 2017, Okwuegbunam tied for the FBS best in most touchdown catches by a tight end, with 11 as a redshirt freshman. He caught six touchdowns in nine games last season before a shoulder injury kept him out of the Tigers’ last four games.
That same ailment limited Okwuegbunam during spring practices.
“It’s normal that when you have that kind of layoff and then for the first time get back into things full speed and you come off the summer work, it’s so different than playing ball. ... There's a normal progression that you typically see with guys and you get injured, there's a hiccup in that progression,” Missouri tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile said. “And so the biggest thing for him is fighting to really accelerate that back again to get to where he would've been without the injury, and that's always a challenge. It's all within his grasp.”
Even with an unplanned end to his sophomore season, ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Okwuegbunam as the sixth-best draft-eligible tight end for 2019.
Okwuegbunam announced his return to Columbia in January. Should he opt to test professional waters this winter, his ranking may be even higher.
“When I look at Albert, I see a ceiling that's extremely high,” said Michael Egnew, a former Missouri All-American tight end. Egnew was chosen in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft and played in the league for three seasons. “What he has, I never had.
“(Albert) has a blocking tight end’s body, but at the same time, he's very long and very fast so he can do all the receiving things as well. His ceiling is extremely high. I think there’s really no limits on what that guy can do.”
Okwuegbunam’s fall camp wasn’t exactly a smooth ride either. During the Tigers’ fourth fall practice Aug. 5, the injury bug struck Missouri’s prized tight end again.
During team drills and lined up against defensive back Jordan Ulmer, he took a wrong step running a route and fell to the turf. His removal from practice that day was described as precautionary, making sure his knee was fine. The Tiger behemoth returned for the next practice two days later as a full participant but was limited at a few other fall camp days.
Missouri head coach Barry Odom routinely calmed any hysteria, saying Okwuegbunam was closer to 100% than not.
Prior to the snap on the play where Okwuegbunam’s most recent setback occurred, one of Missouri’s assistant coaches shouted to Ulmer, “You know Albert’s getting the ball.” Ulmer is only three inches shorter but 65 pounds lighter than Okwuegbunam. That’s a similar matchup problem to what Missouri hopes to present opponents all year long.
Okwuegbunam takes that predictability as a compliment.
“When we’re in the red zone and they're expecting the ball to go to me, it's kind of a compliment to my ability,” Okwuegbunam said. “So really I take it and it makes me get better. If they think I’m getting the ball and I still beat them, then that means I’m doing something right.”
Okwuegbunam said the biggest difference from last season to now about his approach is he’s embraced being one of the vocal leaders on the team. He’s also holding himself to an even higher standard for the other tight ends on the team.
“We hold ourselves to a very high standard specifically in the tight end room, not just the offense, not just the team,” Okwuegbunam said. “But in the tight end room, we hold ourselves to be the best group in the nation. If there's anything I can do to make sure I’m setting a good example for that, that's what I want to do.”
That’s quite a task with all the moving parts the Tigers have. Okwuegbunam hasn’t been the lone banged up Missouri tight end. Daniel Parker Jr. was limited throughout fall camp, and Brendan Scales broke a bone in his foot and is out for the foreseeable future.
“Sometimes you get a guy that has the accolades that he has and then you have progress to be made,” Ofodile said of Okwuegbunam. “He’s very self-aware. He knows the things he does well. He also knows the direction he needs to go.”
And Okwuegbunam believes that path entails blocking out the outside noise and blocking any defender in front of him.
His focus could lead not only him wherever he wants to go, but Missouri as well.
“I don’t think there’s anything that (Okwuegbunam) can't do,” Egnew said. “I think he can do all the things that are required to be a high-level draft pick. Now it's just a matter of going out and doing it — whether it be showing that he's a really effective blocker and whether or not he can make plays.
“And he's proven both already.”