COLUMBIA — Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam will stay with the program for another season, the redshirt sophomore announced Thursday.
Okwuegbunam, who had been considering entering the NFL draft in April, injured his shoulder in the Tigers' 38-17 win at Florida in early November and missed the rest of the season, including the Liberty Bowl. Okwuegbunam, who was listed by some draft services as the top tight end in this class, will continue his recovery in Columbia and play at least one more year for Barry Odom and whoever Missouri selects as its tight ends coach, likely interim Garrick McGee.
"Mizzou Nation, these past 3 years of my life at Mizzou have been the best years of my life," Okwuegbunam said in a statement released on Twitter. "I've made many connections and met people that have positively changed my life forever. Playing with my brothers on the biggest stages in-front (sic) of amazing fans has been an experience you truly can't put a price on. I wouldn't trade being a Mizzou Tiger for anything and I won't. Can't wait to get back to work, we're coming for it all next season!"
Okwuegbunam's size and speed made him a strong third option for Drew Lock in former offensive coordinator Josh Heupel's quick-strike offense, and he caught 29 passes for 415 yards and 11 touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. But his abilities were relied on far more under Derek Dooley this season, which saw him catch 43 passes for 466 yards and six scores in four fewer games.
At 6-foot-5, 255 pounds and with a 4.5-second 40-yard time, Okwuegbunam has NFL-ready size, speed and hands, and had the biggest frame of draft-eligible tight ends before withdrawing his name from a list that includes Noah Fant (Iowa), Alize Mack (Notre Dame) Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama), Isaac Nauta (Georgia) and Kaden Smith (Stanford).
Okwuegbunam's decision to return was based on his NFL draft grade, which players got back leading up to their bowl game, and is less surprising than running back Damarea Crockett's decision to declare for the draft.
Kendall Blanton graduates and will likely find an NFL team willing to sign him to their practice squad if he's not drafted or signed during the summer, and it remains to be seen what Missouri and defensive end-turned-tight end Daniel Parker Jr. decide to do for his sophomore season. Freshman Messiah Swinson returned to practice during bowl preparations after an ACL tear sidelined him for the season in pre-season camp, and Logan Christopherson, Brendan Scales and Zac Schachtner are all back as well. Okwuegbunam's return, as well as incoming freshman Niko Hea, gives Missouri at least six, and possibly seven, tight ends for the 2019 season.