DENVER — Maybe it’s fate or an intoxicating scheme by the football gods, but Broncos rookie tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and second-year quarterback Drew Lock keep running into each other.
Their initial serendipitous moment occurred when Okwuegbunam traveled from his Land of Lincoln hometown of Springfield, Ill., to Columbia, Mo., where Lock had just showed up on the Missouri Tigers campus.
“The first time I met Drew, I was going into summer my senior year of high school and he was going into his freshman year,’’ Okwuegbunam said during a Zoom interview with 9NEWS, which will play on Broncos Country at 6 p.m. Saturday and again on Channel 20 at 9:30 p.m. “I happened to be on a recruiting visit and he happened to be walking through the equipment room. They introduced the both of us and said it would be great if you came here -- this will be the guy throwing you touchdowns in the future.’’
They chatted long enough to start following each other on social media.
“He looked completely different,’’ Okwuegbunam said. “He had different hair and was a little scrawny kid back then.’’
Okwuegbunam went back to Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, a private Catholic institution that was coming off back-to-back state championships. The scrawny kid, meanwhile, would soon become Missouri’s starting quarterback as a true freshman.
Four games into his senior high school season, Okwuegbunam had only 11 catches but six went for touchdowns, when he committed to Missouri. Hang on to that touchdown-per-catch ratio.
Okwuegbunam redshirted his first season at Missouri in 2016, but he and Lock started reconnecting in 2017.
“We had been making connections in practice,’’ said Okwuegbunam. “At the time I was in mix with three tight ends, I wasn’t the starter yet. And then halfway through the season I earned that spot. I started playing really well.
“Me and Drew started hitting it off really well, making a lot of connections. I think I scored something like 10 or 9 touchdowns in a six-game span.’’
He was being humble. It was 10 touchdowns in a five-game span; 9 in four games.
“I feel like that’s when we really hit it off, that’s when we really gained that trust for each other,’’ Okwuegbunam said.
Albert O, as he’s most commonly called, finished his freshman season with 11 touchdowns off just 29 catches. He added six more touchdowns off 43 catches from Lock in 2018, but the tight end missed his quarterback buddy last season.
Lock went on to play quarterback for the Broncos while Okwuegbunam suffered from a lingering shoulder injury and his production slipped to 26 catches, although he still scored six more touchdowns.
A first-round talent who remarkably covered 40 meters in just 4.49 seconds from his 6-foot-5, 258-pound frame at the NFL Combine in late-February, Okwuegbunam nevertheless slipped to the fourth round.
After all 32 teams passed on him through 117 draft picks in late-April, Okwuegbunam wound up back with his quarterback again.
It almost seemed like destiny overruled logic. The Broncos already had a fast, athletic, big-play, receiver-type tight end in Noah Fant, who was the team’s first-round draft pick in 2019. A team only needs one.
But the lure of reconnecting Lock with his college security blanket defeated team needs at other positions.
“A little bit surprised because I ended up with Drew,’’ Okwuegbunam said. “One in 32 chance of that happening. A little surprised there. There’s already a lot of talent in that tight end room. I look forward to going against a talented player like Noah. Just competing against each other and making each other better.’’
Perhaps, in the red zone, where Okwuegbunam has excelled since high school, the Broncos will line up both Fant and his new tight end partner. But with 24 touchdowns off his 98 college catches in three seasons at Missouri, Okwuegbunam is a red zone threat that cannot be wasted.
“If you want to put a linebacker on me to match my size I’m faster than him,’’ he said. “And if you want to put a DB on me to match my speed then I’m going to be bigger than him. So I feel like with my mentality in the red zone, when the ball is in the air it’s mine. I’m going to come down with it. That mentality with my physical attributes, I just feel like I create an overall mismatch.’’
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