Most important changes of 2004: #6

InsideMizzou continues its countdown of the most important changes from last season to this year. At No. 6, get a look at the Tigers' tight end corps, which boasts a couple of playmakers that are big targets with soft hands.

Sure, there may be a little scarlet and cream in his blood, but don't blame one brother for another's decision.

Missouri freshman TE Martin Rucker's older brother, Mike, was a standout on the defensive line and garnered All-American honors for Nebraska, earning him a career in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers. One Rucker heard the call of the Cornhuskers and could not pass up the opportunity.

Martin, known as Tee by his teammates, heard the call as well, but went in another direction. He chose Missouri, hoping to join an offense that would take advantage of his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame as a featured tight end.

Rucker, a St. Joseph native, might not have reached that goal yet, but he is getting close. Rucker, along with senior TE Victor Sesay, turned in two of the most impressive performances by receivers in training camp, as both seemed to become the favorite target of whichever quarterback was getting them the ball.

It's not much of a surprise; Sesay, like Rucker, is a big target that catches most balls thrown his way. In a still developing offense, dump-off passes to tight ends are a safe, but potentially very successful, option. In just his second year in the Missouri program, Sesay will keep the top tight end job, but Rucker will see plenty of playing time, too.

"I'd like to get a tight end involved much more in the passing game," coach Gary Pinkel said early this fall. "I think we can; we have some athletes there, but that remains to be seen, as we mature. But it's a sense of urgency, without question."

That urgency has not gone unheeded by the players. Sesay became the focus of both starting junior QB Brad Smith and freshman signal caller Chase Patton in the Tigers' second scrimmage, as he racked up five receptions on the day. Despite starting just two games last season, Sesay is not an unknown: he had 15 grabs last season and three touchdowns, including a historic grab on a fake field goal pass from Sonny Riccio in Missouri's upset of those same Cornhuskers.

But expecting Sesay to step up as a premier playmaker is a new idea for the Tigers. For his part, Sesay says he is ready.

"Whenever you call my number, I'm ready to make a play," he said. "There's things I've gotta work on every day and things I gotta do every day to get myself better and to help out this team any more."

Those things could include blocking, an equally vital aspect of the tight end's job. Because of his ability to do exactly that, senior TE Clint Matthews will take some of Rucker's playing time, but Missouri experimented with two tight-end sets throughout the fall, usually employing Sesay and Rucker.

Rucker continues to develop physically, as he added 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He missed much of spring practice with a nagging shoulder injury that required surgery, but he showed no ill effects this fall. Despite entering camp as the No. 4 man on the depth chart, he has shown that he could provide an impact immediately.

It was obvious almost right away, as Pinkel raved about Rucker's contributions after Missouri's first scrimmage.

"I think Tee Rucker stood out today," Pinkel said. "He's a guy that for 10 days, he's been looking good. He shows up every practice as a guy that can make some plays."

That kind of consistency is what the coaching staff is looking for from the position. Although it will be difficult to impossible for Rucker to overcome Sesay this season, the position as a whole boasts a talent level that will greatly aid the Missouri passing attack.

"Each backup behind me, and each person behind him, pushes each other to do better," Sesay said. "I like that competition and I look forward to it."

Check back tomorrow as our countdown continues with No. 5.

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