Freshman Niko Hea realizes he must bide his time while playing behind junior Albert Okwuegbunam and sophomore Daniel Parker.
But it's not that Missouri's third-string tight end doesn’t have the talent to play Division I football. Tigers tight ends coach A.J. Ofodile is a believer in Hea’s talents. Okwuegbunam, who has reeled in five touchdowns through the first five games this season, also believes Hea will be a standout performer.
“Playing behind guys like Albert O and DP helps a lot,” said Hea, who played as a receiver at Christian Brothers High School in St. Louis. “I really feel I have learned better how to block. At CBC, we didn’t do a lot of blocking at wide receiver, so coming here the coaching staff kind of taught me how to block. Playing in the Southeastern Conference, it’s important to get your technique down. The route running is also very detailed.”
Hea patiently looks forward to getting more and more opportunities with Missouri in the future. In the meantime, he continues to work not only in practice to refine his blocking skills, but also in games on special teams.
Ofodile said Hea has improved tremendously since the start of preseason camp in August.
“You have a guy who basically, for all intents and purposes, was an outside wide receiver in high school, so obviously from a recruiting, evaluating standpoint, he had all the physical traits that you look for,” Ofodile said. “He had the size, speed, flexibility and the ball skill, but you just know that whole process of transitioning to an inline blocker is not an easy thing.
“He’s done a great job in terms of being really coachable and being really willing. He wants to do the extra work. He works hard in the weight room and he’s gained probably 20 pounds since his official visit, so he’s doing everything he needs to do to put himself on the right path.”
After MU led Troy 42-7 at halftime last Saturday at Faurot Field, Hea entered the second half and hauled in his first collegiate reception for 6 yards.
Hea, who burned his redshirt by playing in the game, said he received a number of text messages from friends about his first catch.
“My goal this year is just to make plays and help the team win,” Hea said. “I got my first catch last week, so I was pretty excited.”
Hea thrived at CBC playing with quarterback Brett Gabbert — the younger brother of former Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert — and finished his senior season with 43 catches for 814 yards and 12 touchdowns. CBC won state titles in 2017 and 2018.
Brett Gabbert, who was considering Missouri, ended up signing with Miami (Ohio), where he is now a freshman.
“Obviously, Brett is a pretty good quarterback, so we had a pretty good passing game,” Hea said of his time at CBC. “He put the ball on the money and everything, so it was awesome playing with him. He is doing well at Miami of Ohio, so it just goes to show you that he was a great quarterback.”
Like Gabbert, Hea fielded offers from a number of Division I schools. Hea chose to stay close to home and play at Missouri despite offers from 16 different schools.
Hea said playing behind both Okwuegbunam and Parker has taught him more this season than any of his years of playing football.
“Even when I am not in the game, I keep an eye on the play calls and see what the guys who are playing tight end on the field are doing during that play," Hea said. "I also keep the sideline going. That’s kind of our job. If you’re not in the game, it’s our job to keep the guys up when they come off the field.”
Okwuegbunam said Hea’s improvement has been huge since the start of the season. He said the thing that separates Hea from being an average freshman is his ability to make positive steps every day.
“When Niko first came in, he was basically a wide receiver, but his ability to learn blocking and transition to the speed, to our level of football, has been huge,” Okwuegbunam said. “Just the amount of time we have in the Tiger room should speak for itself that he has been able to find some time on the field.”
Ofodile said even though Hea is the No. 3 tight end, he provides important depth for the Tigers.
“You can’t have a guy down on scout team and then all of a sudden reteach him the offense and technique in three days,” Ofodile said. “Niko has been playing special teams and getting some pretty decent reps for a freshman, especially at the tight end spot.
"But the biggest thing is that he is ready to roll when we need him.”
cbowie@boonvilledailynews.com