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.
Arkansas position glance Tight ends:
Good mix of skills gives Hogs options
Arkansas sophomore tight end Hunter Henry makes a catch during practice Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Bret Bielema's offenses have been very good to the tight end position.
Two- and three-tight-end sets were common in Bielema's offenses at Wisconsin. Badgers tight ends had big seasons catching the ball too, such as Garrett Graham (51 receptions, 624 yards, 7 TDs) in 2009, Lance Kendricks (43, 663, 5) in 2010 and Jacob Pederson (30, 356, 8) in 2011. Five Wisconsin tight ends from Bielema's seven-year stint are on NFL rosters, according to the Wisconsin football Web site.
Tight ends glance
RETURNING STARTER Hunter Henry
LOSSES Austin Tate, Mitchell Loewen
WHO’S BACK Jeremy Sprinkle, Alex Voelzke
WHO’S NEWAJ Derby, Jack Kraus
WALK-ONS Will Duncan
ANALYSIS The Razorbacks will use multiple tight end sets frequently and they’ll sprinkle the tight ends everywhere with them lining up at the traditional end-of-the-line spot, split wide, in the slot, as an H-back and even at fullback. Starter Hunter Henry and fellow sophomore Jeremy Sprinkle have improved at in-line blocking. AJ Derby’s knowledge of the offense, great hands and blocking ability are welcome additions. Alex Voelzke is a key asset for depth, which helped allow Arkansas to move Mitchell Loewen to defensive end. Freshman Jack Kraus is good insurance against injuries while possibly redshirting.
Bielema and Jim Chaney want to build another tight end dynasty with the Arkansas offense, and they like the players in place heading into 2014.
Sophomore Hunter Henry of Little Rock is the crown jewel at the spot after earning freshman All-America honors last season. He is reinforced by redshirt sophomore Jeremy Sprinkle of White Hall, junior Alex Voelzke, a former walk-on, converted quarterback AJ Derby, another former walk-on who has struggled with a knee injury for most of camp, and true freshman Jack Kraus of Bentonville.
"They were good before they got here, and I think they're still a pretty solid group of players," Chaney said.
Position coach Barry Lunney Jr. has been impressed by the tight ends behind Henry, who has been held out of some scrimmage work.
"I thought Jeremy and Alex and Jack Kraus all did a nice job kind of bumping up so to speak when AJ was out, during the week he was out," Lunney said. " I feel real good about where we're at."
Henry's numbers in 2013 weren't jaw dropping -- 28 receptions for 409 yards and 4 touchdowns -- but he played virtually the entire season on a rickety knee. Henry took a shot to his knee on his first career catch against Louisiana-Lafayette in the season opener, then bit the bullet to help the Hogs through a difficult season.
"I woke up the next day and it was swollen, and it kind of bothered me the rest of the season," Henry said. "Then I banged up my other knee and I was banged up off and on the rest of the season."
Coaches wrestled with the idea of redshirting Henry, but he was desperately needed in the early part of 2013 because senior Austin Tate was recovering from shoulder surgery.
"There were days like Wednesday practices, Jim [Chaney] would look at me and say 'He can't play,' " Lunney recalled. "You know the way he was running. He was just so tender and his knee was really hurting.
"I'll tell you, Hunter's tough. ... He always played better on Saturdays than he did on Wednesdays."
The in-line blocking part of playing tight end is something Henry, who did little of it at Pulaski Academy, and Sprinkle have needed to shore up. Derby's willingness and tenacious approach to blocking inspired the others early in camp.
"Hunter kind of was in a position that he knew he was a [returning] guy and the best we had at that position," Bielema said. "But, I'll tell you this, Jeremy Sprinkle has put on 35 pounds since we came here.
"I love Hunter to death. I love what he is. But all of a sudden those other guys say, 'I can do this too,' especially AJ. AJ, in what he's done in the blocking game, has definitely made Hunter better."
Sprinkle had the biggest day among all pass catchers in Arkansas' last scrimmage, with three receptions for 91 yards, including a 53-yard strike down the right sideline from Brandon Allen to end the first six-play segment, and a 27-yard touchdown from Allen.
"We're just continuing to gain more trust and belief in him," Lunney said.
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Sprinkle and the other tight ends can line up connected to the line, disconnected by a few yards, split wide, at a fullback-like spot and like a moving H-back in the Arkansas system.
"I like it a lot," Sprinkle said. "We've got a lot of tight ends and a lot of talent on offense. It's like whatever we do in practice that we're good at, they're going to transfer that over to the game and let us do what we can do."
Henry's natural skill at running past linebackers and beating safeties for balls should be more on display with his return to health. Henry, Sprinkle and Derby, who starred in several spring practices with an array of circus catches, all have a penchant for getting open on deeper routes.
"We think all three of those guys can stretch the field vertically," Lunney said. "I mean, probably none of them run quite as well as Jeremy does when he gets in full stride. I think Hunter is probably our most consistent guy down there.
"Jeremy is the guy that can separate more downfield because of his stride length, and AJ is probably the quickest to get there. So they all three have some kind of unique qualities in how they route run."
Lunney said Kraus has picked things up quickly, but in an ideal scenario the Razorbacks might be able to redshirt him if everybody else at the spot stays healthy.
"He's had a really nice fall camp had a really good scrimmage on Saturday," Lunney said. "So we would feel comfortable [playing him] if we got to that point."
Sports on 08/20/2014