Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Shaking things up
Derby, Mitchell in new spots; coaches pleased
Arkansas tight end A.J. Derby (center) stretches with teammates during the Razorbacks practice Thursday afternoon in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Jim Chaney sees the position moves executed last week as a win-win situation for the Arkansas offense.
The once-packed quarterback spot has been trimmed to three, allowing freshmen Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey a bigger workload behind Brandon Allen. The tight end crew has a capable and knowledgeable new contributor in AJ Derby, and freshman Damon Mitchell looks like an attractive option with the ball in his hands as a receiver and runner.
“What I have right now are two young quarterbacks that need a lot of reps,” Arkansas’ offensive coordinator said after Tuesday’s 10th spring practice. “Brandon, coming back from his shoulder injury that he played with all last fall, is getting good, adequate reps, so I’m pleased we have the opportunity to push three kids through that and get a lot of reps right now.
“The math is turning out in our favor right now, so we’re tickled with that.”
Derby said it took a few meetings with Coach Bret Bielema before he got on board with a move from second-team quarterback to tight end.
“I was always convinced I was a quarterback,” Derby said. “I’m bullheaded. It’s tough to convince me otherwise, and so me and Coach B had a couple of talks about it and finally I came to the conclusion it’s best for the team. I’m just happy with the transition and will help the team win any way I can.”
Sophomore tight end Hunter Henry said Derby has been a valuable presence in their meeting room.
“He’s been around and he knows this offense well,” Henry said. “When he’s in our room, he knows things that sometimes we don’t always know, so it’s good to hear his side of things too.”
Derby caught an 8-yard touchdown pass in his first scrimmage as a tight end, but it came at the end of a 13-play series during which he dropped a would-be 59-yard touchdown 10 plays earlier.
“I got a little too casual with it,” Derby said. “I’ve never really been on that end of it, being that wide open. It just kind of happened, but it won’t happen again.”
Brandon Allen said there is no learning curve for the 6-5, 245-pound Derby at tight end because he already knows the structure of the offense and the position’s assignments.
“People probably didn’t know he can run and catch the ball as well as he can,” Allen said. “That’s going to be a huge asset for us.”
Henry said Derby’s ability to take on defensive ends and linebackers as a blocker has come natural.
“I mean, he’s a pretty big guy if you look at him,” Henry said. “He’s not tiny. He’s a strong guy in the weight room. … He wanted to hit people at quarterback, so I think now he’s able to go in there and hit.”
Derby said his older brother, Zach, a former tight end at Iowa, used to rough him up and helped show him how physical it could be at tight end.
“He’s really been impressive,” tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said. “He’s done a really nice job. He can run.He’s very willing as a blocker. He’s natural.”
Mitchell, 6-2, 205, had three touches for 38 yards as a multi-purpose athlete in his first scrimmage, but it took some coaxing from Bielema for the quarterback signee to accept a two-week trial in his new role.
Receivers coach Michael Smith said he’s had conversations with Mitchell about once playing quarterback himself.
“It was tough for him,” Smith said. “I was a quarterback, and I didn’t want to jump out there at wide receiver. … The guys [receivers] have told him, ‘Come over here, man. We have a lot of fun. You can help us out.’
“It’s just like AJ doing what’s best for the team. If it works out, it does. If not, he can go back to quarterbacks, but try to get out on the field and play and contribute.”
Chaney called Mitchell a wonderful athlete.
“I want him to be a productive member of our football team,” he said. “That will never change. If he can go out and help us at a different position right now and he chooses to do so, we’d love to have him.”
Sports, Pages 21 on 04/16/2014