All Missouri needed to erase a 15-yard facemask penalty was one right foot.
But not just any right foot would do. It needed to be the one that belongs to redshirt junior tight end Albert Okwuegbunam.
The Tigers faced a first-and-goal from the 16 after a facemask penalty in the second quarter against Troy. What seemed like a precarious situation was anything but that. Those 16 yards disappeared after Okwuegbunam leapt to grab the pass from Kelly Bryant and tapped his right foot on the corner of the end zone before the defender shoved him out of bounds. Touchdown Tigers.
“It was as big time a catch as a guy can make,” tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile said.
There’s a reason Okwuegbunam has a chance to go early in next year’s NFL Draft. He added two catches against Troy to supplement his already impressive resume. Both catches displayed Okwuegbunam’s athleticism, control and overall field awareness.
The touchdown catch is the more noteworthy toe-tap moment. The other came in the first quarter.
In a catch along the sideline with 4:47 left in the first quarter, Okwuegbunam managed to put his left foot down before he ran out of bounds. Then, as his momentum carried him forward, he had to hurdle the Troy bench.
“He can always stay balanced and know where he is at on the field,” receiver Johnathon Johnson said. “His field awareness is probably one of the best I have seen.”
Okwuegbunam will tell you it’s a feeling, nothing he has necessarily practiced. He attributes awareness to catching as many passes as he can. Ofodile added that it’s something that can’t be practiced easily. Coaches don’t want their players diving all the time in practice. That, Ofodile said, is a good way to hurt shoulders. Even if they had a pad to catch the diving receivers, there would not be as much room to tap the foot in bounds.
The best option most teams utilize is the sideline tap drill. It’s commonplace for most tight ends and receivers to practice, Ofodile said. The drill is simple: The ball is thrown as the receiver approaches the sideline. Then they must drag a foot or chop their feet.
“It makes you mindful of it and maybe creates a little muscle memory toward it, but you can’t simulate the version that he did,” Ofodile said. “Not on that drill.”
So how is Okwuegbunam ready and able to make this play? There’s no simple answer among Missouri players and coaches. Receiver Barrett Banister said visualization is an important ingredient.
“He believes he can make those catches and the coaches believe in him,” Banister said. “Whenever you are out there going and you see that ball, he just goes up and gets it like he expects to.”
Ofodile attributes Okwuegbunam’s success in making these difficult toe-tapping catches to natural ability and athleticism as well. Johnson said Okwuegbunam’s size also helps when jumping for passes in the end zone.
“When you are out there, time just slows down,” Okwuegbunam said. “You just know where you are out on the field. First thing is first: securing the catch. Then as soon as that happens, making sure you get a foot down as fast as you can in bounds.”
Easy enough, as long as you’re a tight end expected to be an early-round NFL draft pick.