Arkansas football Special teams:

Henson, Hedlund battling toe to toe

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, August 15, 2014
Arkansas kickers (from left to right) Cole Hedlund, John Henson and Sam Irwin-Hill stretch prior to practice Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas kickers (from left to right) Cole Hedlund, John Henson and Sam Irwin-Hill stretch prior to practice Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2014 at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Zach Hocker didn't have many bad days as Arkansas' place-kicker the past four years.

The Washington Redskins rookie made 61 of 79 field-goal attempts and set a school career scoring record with 354 points.

UA position glance

Special teams

RETURNING STARTERS P Sam Irwin-Hill, SNP Alan D’Appollonio, H Matt Emrich.

KEY LOSS K Zach Hocker

WHO’S BACK PK John Henson, P Toby Baker, SNP Drew Gorton

WHO’S NEW PK Cole Hedlund

ANALYSIS Henson appears to have a slight edge over Hedlund in the competition to replace Hocker, who holds Arkansas’ career record with 354 points. A sign of how well Henson has kicked in fall camp is that he was placed on scholarship this week. Irwin-Hill averaged 44.3 yards on 46 punts last season and can kick with either foot. D’Appollonio is going into his fourth season as the No. 1 deep snapper. Emrich was the holder in every game last season.

But when Hocker struggled two years ago against LSU, John Henson was ready.

Henson made field goals of 25 and 17 yards and an extra point-- his only attempts for the Razorbacks -- after Hocker missed from 43 and 40 yards.

John L. Smith, the Razorbacks' interim coach in 2012, decided to give Henson a shot in the last game of the season.

"That was pretty big for me, my first game kicking field goals," Henson said. "John L. threw me in there. He didn't tell me beforehand. He just told me I was kicking. I was like, 'All right.'

"I went in there cold, but it was a great experience in me."

Now that Hocker has moved on to the NFL, Henson, a fifth-year senior from Southlake Carroll (Texas) High School, hopes to win the place-kicking job this season.

But Henson is getting plenty of competition from Cole Hedlund, a freshman from Argyle, Texas, who was a Parade and USA Today High School All-American last season when he hit 24 of 30 field-goal attempts -- including a 57-harder -- and made all 101 of his extra-point attempts during his team's 16-0 season.

So far in fall camp Henson has been working as the No. 1 kicker. He has been impressive enough that Coach Bret Bielema put him on scholarship.

"I was pretty surprised," Henson said. " It was a cool thing."

Hedlund was among Arkansas' scholarship signees in February. He said he knew he'd have to compete for the place-kicking job despite his impressive high school numbers.

"It's college level D-I. You definitely have to earn your spot," Hedlund said. "I knew coming in I wasn't just going to be handed the job.

"It's great having competition. John's done a really good job so far, so I guess we'll just see what happens."

Henson and Hedlund each made 23 of 25 field goals during the first week of fall camp, with the misses coming from 49 yards or farther. Henson was 4 of 4 during Wednesday night's practice, hitting from 29, 35, 45 and 51 yards. Hedlund was 3 of 4, hitting from 29, 35 and 42 yards and missing from 51.

"The kickers have been a highlight," Bielema said after practice. "I think John has a little bit of an edge, but I love what Cole's doing."

Henson said he respects Hedlund's approach and confidence in practice, especially for a freshman.

"We're really pushing each other," Henson said. "We're both performing really well, but at the end of the day I'm just worrying about myself. I can't control anything else."

Henson said he didn't become impatient while Hocker had the kicking job for four years.

"I don't really see it as waiting around," he said. "I just see it as a great opportunity to come and learn on-the-field things and off-the-field things.

"I've had three head coaches and four specialist coaches. I've gotten a lot of good perspectives on all sorts of lessons."

Rory Segrest, who came to Arkansas in January and coaches the defensive line and specialists, was the Philadelphia Eagles' special teams coordinator in 2007 and 2008.

"Coach Segrest is really great to work with and watch film with," Henson said. "He has a lot to teach us from his time with the Eagles."

Henson said he also has benefitted from kicking with Hocker.

"Zach was probably the greatest coach I ever had, because I was never really trained in high school," Henson said. "So pushing him, him pushing me, it was a cool thing to be around him for four years."

Bielema didn't rule out the possibility of having Henson or Hedlund handling field-goal and extra-point attempts and the other kicking off.

Kickoffs, in particular, were a strength for Hocker, who recorded touchbacks on 34 of his 50 kickoffs last season.

Bielema said he also isn't opposed to having them sharing the field-goal duties if that's what helps the Razorbacks win games.

"If someone's better short range and someone's better long range, I can go to that," he said. "I really don't care. Just trying to make them."

Saturday scrimmage is open to the public, and Bielema said he wants to put his kickers under some pressure.

"I'd like to get as big a crowd feel as we can," Bielema said. "I want to create that environment mainly for our kickers. I really do want to see how they perform."

Bielema said he doesn't want to wait until the week of Arkansas' Aug. 30 season at Auburn to name a No. 1 kicker. He said he hopes to make a decision next week.

"I would hope that it kind of pans out a little bit in the next week," Bielema said. "I love the competition, because I really do think it bring out the best in people."

Sports on 08/15/2014