COLUMBIA, Mo. — It’s not the way he wanted to prove a point, but Monday’s practice made the case for Missouri coach Barry Odom: Depth is essential.
Within minutes of each other late in the morning practice, quarterback Kelly Bryant and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam went down with injuries and were carted off the field for further testing.
Talking to reporters immediately after practice, and before that testing took place, Odom said the initial diagnosis for Bryant was a hamstring strain and for Okwuegbunam a knee sprain. Odom didn’t know the severity of either injury but didn’t appear too worried they would miss extensive time. Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott, another starter, also left practice because of a possible head injury.
The Tigers have another 13 practices before their season opener, Aug. 31 at Wyoming.
“Guys are banged up,” Odom said. “Kelly went down today for a little bit with a hamstring strain. Albert went down with a knee sprain. Those guys will be back. Jordan Elliott got dinged up a little bit. . . . I hate it. That’s the worst part of this deal. But injuries are going to happen. But fortunately, looks like they’re going to be back and be ready to go. But you never know. I mean, the next guy up. You got to be ready for your number to be called and prepare just like you’re the starter.”
Asked how long he expected the players to be sidelined, Odom was unsure.
“I just walked off the practice field, so I have no clue. We’ll go in and get a medical report, get them checked out,” he said. “. . . I’ve had one conversation with our doctor and he gave me the report that I just gave you. From there, I went and coached the team. We’ll check them out.”
With about 30 minutes left in the practice, Okwuegbunam went up for a pass in the end zone during a red-zone drill and landed on the turf. After a moment on the ground, he got to his feet and walked on his own the length of the field to the medical tent. Just minutes later Bryant scrambled out of the pocket and slipped on the grass without absorbing much contact. Linebacker Cale Garrett quickly scooped him up and put him back on his feet. The quarterback slowly walked to the medical tent to be evaluated by the training staff. Both were taken off the practice field on a cart to the team facility.
The Tigers have their first day off the practice fields Tuesday and will resume practice Wednesday. Odom is unlikely to disclose updates until after Wednesday’s practice. Sophomore Taylor Powell, the top backup on the team’s depth chart, replaced Bryant for the rest of the 11-on-11 team period at the end of practice. Junior Lindsey Scott Jr. and freshman Connor Bazelak also could get extra snaps should Bryant miss more practice time. The Tigers have another scholarship quarterback on the roster, Texas Christian transfer Shawn Robinson, but because he’s not eligible to play this season he’s not getting practice work with the top units.
“Shawn’s not in the mix right now because he’s not eligible, but everybody else, you’re a play away from being the guy,” Odom said. “That’s the name of the game and they’ve got to prepare and be ready.”
Bryant, MU’s graduate transfer from Clemson, was named the team’s starter shortly after he announced his commitment to Mizzou in December. He has one remaining year of eligibility after going 16-2 as Clemson’s starter in 2017 and the first month of 2018.
If Okwuegbunam has to miss practices, sophomore Daniel Parker Jr. should see his role expand with the first unit, while backups Messiah Swinson, Logan Christopherson, Brendan Scales and Niko Hea are other options at the position. Okwuegbunam, a preseason All-SEC selection and All-American candidate, missed the final 4½ games of 2018 because of a broken scapula, though was still named a finalist for the Mackey Award. He passed on the NFL draft to return and is considered one of the top tight-end prospects for 2020.
Through four days of practice, tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile has been impressed with his group’s play, even though only Okwuegbunam and Parker have extensive college game experience. How many of his tight ends will see the field this year?
All of them could earn roles, he said.
“Today’s a perfect example that you really got to have everybody ready,” he said. “The way (offensive coordinator Derek) Dooley does it, and it’s a great incentive for players, if you’re productive in practice, he’ll find a role for you. You have a niche role and a job. We may play five tight ends. If we have five productive guys then we’ll have five guys ready to roll in some form or fashion.”