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Derby making most of position change
Arkansas tight end A.J. Derby picks up a block as the hogs run drills during the Razorbacks practice Thursday afternoon in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE AJ Derby was admittedly stubborn about giving the quarterback position every chance he could.
That is, until the Arkansas senior realized his final season of college football was approaching — with the very real possibility he might not see the field.
With his playing time in jeopardy — and with some gentle encouragement from coach Bret Bielema — Derby switched from quarterback to tight end prior to the start of spring practice.
It's a move that has paid immediate dividends for both Arkansas and its former Iowa transfer, who has been the surprise of the spring for the recovering Razorbacks. In fact, the position switch has been so successful that Bielema and Derby's teammates now aren't so sure his career will end in college.
"I feel like AJ Derby is going to be one of those stories where you say, 'He was just a backup quarterback, and now he's been in the (NFL) at tight end for 10 years,'" running back Jonathan Williams said. "I mean, he's made that such of a quick jump. It's so natural to him."
Derby originally signed with his home-state Iowa to begin his career, but he was quickly met with talk of a possible position change after playing in nine games as a redshirt freshman with the Hawkeyes.
Rather than switch to tight end or linebacker, Derby eventually transferred to Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College for the 2012 season. He finally had his chance as a starting quarterback, but the 6-foot-5, 264-pound Derby struggled with his accuracy and turnovers in junior college — completing 46.4 percent (149 of 321) of his passes while throwing 22 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.
Derby arrived at Arkansas prior to last year's spring practice, and his experience earned him the backup quarterback position last season. And when Brandon Allen was injured early last year, Derby stepped in and led the Razorbacks to a win over Southern Mississippi.
He finished the season 19-of-36 passing (52.8 percent) for 178 yards, but Allen's return and added quarterback depth — along with a lack of established playmakers at wide receiver — led Bielema to once again broach the subject of a position switch.
This time, coming off a disappointing 3-9 season that saw Arkansas go winless in the Southeastern Conference and lose its final nine games, Derby was ready to listen.
"I was all-in at quarterback," Derby said. "... But I want to be a leader on the team, and I think the best way for me to be a leader is to be on the field, so I'm all-in on this and I want to help this team win."
Derby's move hasn't been without its share of pitfalls, most notably a wide-open dropped pass during an early Razorbacks scrimmage. The drop aside, Bielema said the move has been timely for a passing offense that was worst in the SEC last season with only 148.5 yards per game through the air.
In fact, Derby had several highlight-worthy catches during Arkansas' practice over the weekend — the most notable a diving one-handed touchdown snare that led to cheers across the practice field. He looked every bit like a bona-fide tight end on the play and nothing like a player catching passes for the first time since his sophomore year in high school.
"He's very legit, that's for sure," Allen said. "He came right out of the quarterback room, so there's no learning curve for him getting out there ... There's not much not to like with him out there at tight end."
The Razorbacks already return one of the top tight ends in the league in sophomore Hunter Henry, who was second-team All-SEC last year as a freshman, but Bielema is excited about the prospect of having two threats at the position.
He's even gone as far during the spring to compare Derby's emergence to that of former Iowa and NFL standout Dallas Clark, who switched from linebacker to tight end while in college.
"I'm not saying he's going to be all that, but the transition has been as seamless as I can imagine," Bielema said. "Not just catching it ... But what he does in the running game. He changes our offense literally overnight."
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