COLUMBIA — Last season, the Missouri football team needed depth at tight end so badly they converted freshman Daniel Parker Jr. from defensive end and used senior offensive lineman Samson Bailey as an added blocker in jumbo packages and even as a surprise target in the pass game at South Carolina.
The Tigers are in a similar position at tight end, at least in fall camp, this season.
Head coach Barry Odom said junior tight end Brendan Scales broke his fifth metatarsal in his foot Wednesday and had surgery Thursday morning, and was told by the medical staff recovery time is estimated at six to eight weeks.
"I hate it, because he had made so much great ground up, was really going to help us," Odom said Thursday. "I hate it for the kid, because he was really turning the corner."
Minor injuries still linger for junior Albert Okwuegbunam and Parker Jr., and redshirt freshman Messiah Swinson, who tore his ACL during camp last season, is still getting back to full strength and comfort within the offense. The team even had offensive lineman Angel Matute, who played other offensive positions previously in his football career, take a few snaps in the role Bailey occupied a year ago.
The Tigers are off today, hold closed practices Saturday and Sunday and are off again Monday, so Odom said limiting Okwuegbunam and Parker Jr. in practice this week was done because the staff already knows what both are capable of. Odom said Okwuegbunam, still dealing with a sprained knee, is "a lot closer to being 100 percent than not."
Several others were in the same position: Junior defensive end Jordan Elliott (soreness) did not go through Thursday's practice fully in order to be 100 percent Saturday, and senior wide receiver Johnathon Johnson (sprained toe) was in a walking boot. Odom called the injury "very, very minor" and Johnson said he felt great after practice.
The result of these injuries, paired with the new redshirt rule, which lets players play in four games without exhausting a season of eligibility, is several young guys will likely play more than four games.
Freshman tight end Niko Hea is one of them. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and despite being the smallest tight end on the roster, he caught Missouri's eye late in the recruiting cycle and has shown continual improvement since arriving.
"He had a monster senior year, didn't have the same junior year, so he was late on the scene and a lot of people had moved on," tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile said. "A lot of people don't do senior evals. We've had a lot of success with senior evals over the last few years, that's kind of been one of our cornerstones, and he's a good example of that.
"A kid that, you know, if you're patient and you have standards in terms of what you're looking for athletically, you don't settle. You keep looking, and find, sometimes right under your nose, and we feel like we got a really good one."
Wide receivers Maurice Massey and C.J. Boone have turned heads in camp, as has running back Anthony Watkins.
That approach is no different on the defensive side.
Linebacker Devin Nicholson, defensive lineman Isaiah McGuire, defensive backs Stacy Brown and Martez Manuel are expected to be contributors on special teams, and chip in on defense as well.
"We've got the mindset right now we're going to play 'em all," Odom said. "They're all going to get in a position that they'll play four games, for sure."
The SEC released its preseason coaches all-conference team Thursday, which fields first-, second- and third-team rosters. No coach was allowed to vote for their own players, and eight Missouri players were represented: Okwuegbunam, offensive lineman Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms and linebacker Cale Garrett (first team), cornerback DeMarkus Acy and offensive lineman Yasir Durant (second team), running back Larry Rountree III, defensive lineman Jordan Elliott and kicker Tucker McCann (third team).
Alabama led the way with 16 total selections, including nine first-team selections out of a total of 27, which includes one quarterback, one tight end, one center, one return specialist, one kicker, one punter, two wide receivers, three running backs, three linebackers, four defensive linemen, five defensive backs and five offensive linemen.
Georgia and LSU had four first-teamers apiece, Missouri three, Texas A&M and Auburn two, and Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State one each.